While pouring through magazines for the monthly Media Coverage enthusiast press review, one question dominated all others -- how will the enthusiast press deal with the new NFL-exclusive Madden.
Madden is perennially one of the top selling games across every platform in existence. Although the game has a greater crossover appeal than most of the enthusiast favorites, it still is dear to the hearts of hardcore gamers.
Because of this, the way Madden's treated by the enthusiast press can be a barometer for the critical atmosphere inside the enthusiast press. If that's true, there are a few lessons we can learn from the way the latest version of the franchise was treated this year.
1. Reviewers Resent EA
Even though the Madden series continued to upgrade this year, the aggregate reviews for the game were the lowest the series has received in this generation of consoles.
1. Madden NFL 2002 - Ave. GameRankings Score: 92.0%
2. Madden NFL 2003 - Ave. GameRankings Score: 91.3%
3. Madden NFL 2004 - Ave. GameRankings Score: 90.8%
4. Madden NFL 2005 - Ave. GameRankings Score: 90.4%
5. Madden NFL 2001 - Ave. GameRankings Score: 89.5%
6. Madden NFL 06 - Ave. GameRankings Score: 88.0%
The series was trending this direction, but the drop-off was more dramatic than expected. Compare this to the trend on the PlayStation in games that launched before the PS2 generation:
1. Madden NFL 2001 - Ave. GameRankings Score: 87.6%
2. Madden NFL 2000 - Ave. GameRankings Score: 86.3%
3. Madden NFL 97 - Ave. GameRankings Score: 85.0%
4. Madden NFL 98 - Ave. GameRankings Score: 84.2%
5. Madden NFL 99 - Ave. GameRankings Score: 83.3%
On the PlayStation, the games improved in scores during the last two years in which PSOne ruled the world.
More importantly, when you read the text in many (but not all) of the current reviews, the overall tone is even more negative than the scores would indicate. Most every review mentions EA's exclusive license and either implies or explicitly states that the series should now be held to a higher standard. Judging by the scores, that has definitely happened.
2. Resentment is Shown in Small Increments
While the scores did drop to a generational low for this series, they certainly didn't fall through the floor. The differences were marked in tenths of points, half stars and other fractional bits.
As mentioned earlier, when compared head to head with last year's reviews the text was far more negative but the scores were only slightly smaller. Surprisingly there were few painful hits (perhaps the most daring was GameSpot's biting 8.2.)
3. The Enthusiast Press has Next Gen Fever
One point was made exceptionally clear throughout many of this year's Madden reviews. The enthusiast press is ready to move on.
A summer of Xbox 360 and PS3 hype and hands-on experiences have finally taken their toll. The enthusiast press officially has full blown Next Gen fever.
In many of the Madden '06 reviews the editors essentially were saying goodbye to this generation of console sports games while grudgingly accepting the limitations just one more time. This trend has spotted up in recent months, but it was obvious across the board in these reviews.
Of course there is always the danger of leaving regular gamers behind as the enthusiast press clocks out from the pitiful PS2, Xbox and GameCube worlds into the great beyond. However, the readers are probably ready to move on as well. Perhaps a farewell is in order.
4. Editors Can Get Attached to Good PR
In recent discussions with sports reviewers, several mentioned that they missed the competition when it came to reviewing football games. Of course, it's always more fun to have a couple of horses in the race, but something else was missing as well.
One thing that EA's competition (the guys at VC, to be specific) did well was engage enthusiast press sports reviewers. At the beginning of production, they'd ask questions about what they could implement next year. They also sought out valid criticism and they were more aggressive than EA at trying to push their franchise forward.
Most genre specialists never get to experience this kind of back and forth with game developers and many of the football gurus miss the 2K line because of this. EA's polished but corporate PR has little need for such hands-on dealings.
5. The Best Madden '06 Stories Have Yet to be Told
EA popped open Pandora's Box when it purchased the exclusive NFL license. Consider this, EA will use a significant portion of Madden's earnings to pay off massive licensing fees, and the NFL certainly isn't going to be cheaper next time around. In one quick move, EA has turned one of the most profitable genres in all of videogames into a potentially money losing venture.
Just look at the TV networks. Despite the NFL's enormous ratings, broadcasters rarely make a profit on these games. In fact, the nets regularly lose large chunks of money on the NFL each year. The advantage for these networks is higher visibility, better overall ratings and bonus marketing for their upcoming programs.
For videogame companies, this almost certainly can't work. After all, if EA Sports simply becomes an expensive advertising platform for EA's non-sports games, this would be a monumentally disastrous move.
At some point, it would be intriguing to see a full analysis of how many Madden games EA must sell each year just to pay off the NFL license. Unless the market for video games explodes in the next few years (and judging by first week sales, the market is strong, but not explosive), we may still be looking at Madden '06 as the first game in a frightening new era for our industry.