Madden 18 will have an immersive new story mode called Longshot, joining FIFA’s The Journey as single-player, cinematic experiences in EA SPORTS games.
We sit down with Longshot Mode creative director Mike Young and Producer Robin Cowie to get a behind-the-scenes look at how the mode came to life.
How long ago did the team start working on Longshot?
MIKE: Longshot as a concept is four years in the making. I worked with NFL Films to make a short concept video following a quarterback from the regional combine to draft day. This was before FIFA had its success with The Journey. I think the Madden leadership group saw potential when we delivered our opening playable cinematic in Madden 15.
Veteran producer Robin Cowie works with actors of Madden 18 Longshot.
What were some of the areas of focus for a producer on Longshot? How did you prioritize your time?
ROBIN: My primary job was removing blocks to enable the best possible creative experience. The guide for Longshot was to always tell the most cinematic story possible. We wanted to come as close as we could to a playable movie.
Longshot is a cinematic experience aimed at being similar to playable movie.
You produced The Blair Witch Project. How did producing Longshot compare to a movie?
ROBIN: There were many similarities—we worked with terrifically talented actors, like Mahershala Ali, and Mike was very prepared as a director. The biggest difference for me is the amount of creative control you have during the animation and digital camera parts of production. For most of a film, what is in front of camera accounts for 80 – 90% of the finished content. Only 20 – 30% have digital effects or digital manipulation. Creatively it gives you great freedom but it is a bit of a producing headache.
Former NFL receiver Chad Johnson (aka Ochocinco) gets his cues from Mike Young before a shot.
What are the similarities between producing TV and film in a traditional setting and creating new, movie-like experiences for games?
ROBIN: Much of the storytelling language is universal. We have a terrific cinematographer, Brian Murray, who has brought over a lot of the same craft. But then you introduce player agency. Gamers need that hands-on control. This forces us to alter the storyteller’s controls.
NFL Legend Dan Marino shows off his Hall of Fame form.
An edit, for example, must allow time for the gamer to make a choice while not hanging in an awkward way. It’s a unique balance between crafted narrative and agency where the gamer steers the story.
Take us through your day-to-day in developing the mode. What did you and the team focus on?
MIKE: The focus from day one was that we had to tell a good story. The approach was to write it like a movie then go back and rewrite it to make it playable. Choices had to go beyond just allowing people to express their personality. We wanted the decisions to not be black and white.
Mahershala Ali’s charisma and depth are not lost in the transition to animation.
Even with the art, we wanted meaningful story choices. Longshot has over 40 locations and 40+ characters. Wardrobe changes and the set design tells a story. The posters in Ross’ office tell you where he’s been. You could read the framed newspaper clippings hung proudly by Devin’s father. You feel like there is a bigger world to experience.
The suit worn by athletes and actors helps developers render their likenesses in-game.
What were your creative inspirations in writing the story for Longshot?
MIKE: Good Will Hunting for their character dynamics: a hero who self-sabotages, dual mentors, the loyal best friend who is wiser than you think. There’s also The Assassination of Jesse James for lighting and cinematography. Musically, my inspirations include Jamey Johnson, Chris Stapleton, Eddie Vedder (Into the Wild), and Willie Nelson's cover of Just Breathe.
Mike Young: “Choices had to go beyond just allowing people to express their personality. We wanted the decisions to not be black and white.”
For video games, there’s The Last of Us for the quality of story. The opening scene with the father coming home tired is the most truthful thing I’ve seen in games. Telltale’s The Walking Dead for style of dialogue choice and meaningful conflict. Fight Night Champion for lack of loading and variety to gameplay.
What was one of the challenges the team faced during development?
ROBIN: One of the challenges was editing that story. We designed a unique edit pipeline that integrated many film editing techniques with a traditional game development pipeline. The goal was seamless narrative with little taking you out of the story. We wanted the story to flow from one point to another, in and out of gameplay.
What was the overarching challenge in bringing a single-player story mode to a Madden game?
MIKE: The biggest challenge was getting people to totally buy into building a sports story mode that wasn’t following the path set by previous games. I felt like others had a more traditional menu-based superstar mode bolstered with some story scenes. Ours is a story you play.
Mike Young goes over the script with Dan Marino and the rest of the cast.
In terms of shooting Longshot, what was the focus for the team to make it look and feel like a movie?
MIKE: Most animated features and games shoot most of their content in a sound booth with voice actors and then animate the bodies separately. Too many games have stationary characters exchanging dialogue, making it feel like a soap opera. Reacting to other performers is a huge part of acting, it’s not just about delivering lines. I think we were able to achieve real chemistry and emotion.
The performances are a strength of Longshot in my opinion. Our cast is unbelievable.
For the music score, we were able to hook up with Jeff Russo. He has been killing it, composing the scores of Fargo and The Night Of. Our internal team is so talented. Producer Rob Cowie, Emmy Award-winning cinematographer Brian Murray of Hard Knocks, and Uncle Drew who joined a few years back to one-day shoot Longshot. His work is absolutely one of the special parts of Longshot.
Devin Wade shakes hands with Marino, one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the NFL.
How long did the Longshot project take? How did the team’s focus change over time?
ROBIN: From concept to completion roughly 4 years, although the team in the early years was tiny. I became involved a year and a half ago. My job was largely helping Mike bring his vision to life. In the end, you are concerned with making detailed moments better, whereas in the start it is the broad foundations – both for story and tech.
In Longshot mode, players direct a former five-star high school quarterback as he tries to make it to the NFL.
What is the most exciting aspect of Longshot to you and the dev team?
ROBIN: One of the actors brought their 12-year-old son into the office. He is a huge Madden NFL fan. We let him play the first act and several of the dev team gathered around to watch. It was so much fun to see him become completely wrapped up in the story. Every day, we pick relentlessly at what we are doing, and that moment really spoke to why we do what we do. It was pretty fulfilling.
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Photo Credit: Motion Capture photos by Mike Marshall
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