I have one rule about EA’s NHL series of video games: do not buy it every year. I used to do that, way back in the early naughts, but the changes were so incremental—”now with broken sticks!”—that I found the action of buying the new game akin to saying “I haven’t bought myself anything nice in a while.” So my rule is Only Every Other Year… At Most. And it’s that year! So, each WTYKY writer is going to review a different component of the game.
With me being the guy on the blog who writes about profitability and uses too many words to say something sort of simple and dumb, I’m going to review my favorite game mode: Be a GM. James, being a lot more fun than me in every conceivable way, will review the 20th anniversary re-release of NHL 94, and Steve will do the Be a Pro mode, now called Live the Life.
My usual approach to Be a GM is to substitute some non-NHL team for the Phoenix Coyotes and do a ground-up rebuild. This year I’m playing as Dusseldorf EG, whose uniforms (in yellow) are something else. (Aside: Corey Locke!) We won 9 games in our first season, traded the first overall pick for Nail Yakupov, signed $50 million in free agents the next year, and made the playoffs in year two. Authentic!
Sports games allow the gamer the unique opportunity to see gradually improved iterations every year. Imagine the Uncharted games coming out every few years. Now imagine if they released the Beta version of each Uncharted and just fixed as they went along. That’s the NHL series in a nutshell.
My gripe is that upgrades simply don’t happen fast enough, and this is especially true of Be a Gm mode. Be a GM is essentially a series of menus—you can play the games themselves, but it seems beside the point if you’re building a team on a five year plan—and what you’d think would be easy fixes, or subtle tweaks in simulation algorithms, often go unfixed or unrefined.
For example, in the last few editions I’ve noticed that computer-controlled GMs would draft prospects but then, for no reason at all, they wouldn’t sign them. You could go to the free agent market every year, sort the menu to see the players with the highest potential, and find all of that year’s draftees just sitting there without deals. You could then sign the first overall draft pick to an ELC, without offering any compensation to anyone. Knowing that, I’d trade all of my draft picks for veteran NHLers, ransack the free agent market for unsigned prospects, and build a dynasty instantly. My point is that it’s fun to discover these loopholes, but once you do, the game is basically over.
I’m happy to say that in some regards, like the example I’ve given, there have been fixes. In others, quirks and gaps that make the simulation unbelievable persist.
Number one among those persistent issues is that the buttons across menus don’t map in a consistent way. The “accept” button on one screen might be the “back” button on another. This leads, occasionally, to rejecting a deal you would have liked to have accepted, or vice-versa. Elsewhere, EA tries to incorporate a cell phone quick menu into every screen, so by simply pushing a button you’ll bring up your GM’s phone and, using it as a sort of master menu, can jump from one sub-menu into a whole other menu tree. It’s sort of like a ‘home’ button. This mostly works, except when they abandon it altogether and the button you usually use to bring up your phone becomes the button you use to change the display between the NHL and AHL, or counter-offer a trade, or zoom in on a player’s details.
What you’re getting with this kind of inconsistency is an amalgam of changes over several years, without anyone doing a ground-up redesign of the Be a GM user interface. You have to wonder why EA would pour resources into completely redesigning their physics engine or fighting, and not dedicate a small fraction of those resources to doing a usability test on menus. I suspect it’s because I’m the only one playing it, and that’s fair.
Likewise, across game menus there’s a general lack of explanation contrasted with unused screen space. Go to the home menu screen: in a small column on the left are a few unexplained options. You have no idea what half of them are without clicking on them and mucking around for a bit until you find out. The other 80% of the screen is taken up with a picture of a television, which is playing a loop of things that are too small to see.
It’s totally bizarre that a franchise that has been around for 20 years would have such terrible, unintuitive design principles. You basically have to start a game mode and play around with it for a few minutes before you even figure out what the object of that game mode is. Every year they’ll put a new sheen on it, but at no point do they seem to put themselves in the shoes of a casual gamer.
Likewise, the value of a player is expressed in several interesting, though unhelpful ways. Each player has a five star potential system, but it’s not clear whether the stars designate where the player will be when they reach their potential, or how much potential they have left. To make matters worse, the stars are color coded. Because games don’t come with manuals anymore, you don’t know what any of this means unless you get a little interstitial loading screen that happens to randomly explain…and even then, you only have about four seconds to read this explanation before the loading is done.
It’s all surreal. In a game mode that is basically about reading information, that you can’t understand the information you’re given or navigate menus effortlessly is a major hurdle to enjoyment of the game.
One of the game’s other big quirks is that the messaging you receive from other GMs and owners doesn’t ever quite correspond to your actions. You can sign the biggest UFA in the pool, trade for a star, buy-out a player, and move up in the draft, only to have your owner say “Your actions (or lack thereof) surprised me…you better know what you’re doing.” Or your owner can tell you he expects you to get 36 wins in a season, good for 72 points, and then tell you he expects you to make the playoffs, which doesn’t really seem possible with that number of wins. And—my personal favorite—a rival GM can offer you a deal, which you accidentally reject because of the inconsistent button overlay, and when you propose the exact same deal back to him he might say “My fans would drive me out of town if I accepted this! Are you crazy?” It’s bizarre, and it also makes the whole make-believe aspect of a simulation impossible to sustain.
…but it has gotten much, much better than it used to be. GMs provide more nuanced information about what they want. The trading block feature is much more detailed, allowing you to construct packages of players that will actually go through as opposed to constantly guessing what your trading partner needs. You can retain salary cap hits when you trade a player, or ask a trading partner to retain cap hits. When they reject a deal, they say why, say what they like about your offer, and tell you to try again. It’s all much more informative than in previous years, when to pull off a deal you basically had to throw everything and the kitchen sink at a GM, and even then, they probably didn’t have the cap space to accept it.
No Coach, No System
What I find the absolute weirdest about this hockey simulator is the lack of a coach in the whole mix. At no point can you choose what kind of coach you want to hire, and build a team around that. It doesn’t have to be complex—pick a defensive specialist, complement him with defensive players, and the team gets a performance boost. Fire your underperforming coach and see if the team performs differently. Hire an established guy and see it hurt your bottom line in the short term. Go cheaper and take a risk your team underperforms.
With a coach, you can also make the ‘assistant coach’ metric mean something. Right now it’s something you build up with experience points, RPG style, and he feeds you information which, to be honest with you, I’ve never felt I needed to read in the first place. (It’s also surreal to have an assistant coach who answers to you, and no coach…) In any case, it’s a big omission in what claims to be a realistic hockey simulator.
Which brings me to…
Auto line changes and the idiot assistant coach
This problem seems to date back to time immemorial. Let’s say you have a bona fide top line center, rated at 87. Your second line center is an 82. Your third line center is an 80, and your fourth is a 75. Your top line center is hurt early on in a sequence where you’re simming a batch of about ten games. What does your assistant coach do? Well, without the simulation stopping, and without you knowing that he’s hurt, your assistant coach subs in a scratched prospect, rated at about 61, to be your new top line center. From where you’re watching, the team’s sudden tailspin, losing ten in a row, is inexplicable. You check the stats when the sim is done; who is that guy? He’s a -15 with no points in ten games, and played about 25 minutes a night. And, with that, your season is shot. (Go with your gut, assistant coach!)
This gets at the crux of the game’s weirdness. While some aspects will be unbelievably intuitive, something as elementary as line changes that will pair complementary players with one another are clunky, happening without your control, and turn the entire season around on a dime. Some events, like your scout needing a new assignment, will interrupt a sim, which means you have to start a new sim from the point of interruption (very annoying if you’re trying to sim a batch of 40 games and the longest scout assignment is six weeks). Other events, like a star player being injured, you won’t even be notified of.
There are actually very few things you can do to improve your club outside of free agency. You can improve your amateur scouting, and you can improve your pro scouting, but neither of these make huge differences in the game because even with all of the available information, a prospect is still years away from contributing. You can improve the information you get from your assistant coach, which you won’t read. And finally, you can try to reduce injuries, which would be HUGE—but doesn’t seem to work.
I remember in previous iterations of the game you weren’t just able to turn injuries on and off—you could also set the frequency of their occurrence. That was great, because injuries in NHL 14 are rampant. At one point in a recent season, every single one of my top six forwards and my starting goalie was out for at least three months, even though I’d spent all of my experience points making sure my injury prevention and rehab was maxed out. It didn’t make any sense. The game doesn’t have long term injury reserve cap relief either, and you can’t trade injured players, which means there’s nothing you can do except stink. Which we did. Dusseldorf EG had a tough season.
Dependency on free agency
Because of the fact that you’re not rewarded for getting value out of your lineup—finding deals, producing a contender on a budget, etc.—you can spend whatever you need to spend to win, and you won’t go anywhere unless you do. So, when you think about it, the game comes down to signing the top 2-3 free agents every year, and simming the season to see what happens. If you don’t, the cap just keeps escalating, and you won’t be able to keep up with the joneses.
This removes the whole aspect of having a Be a GM mode that would make it not only rewarding for those who try to put ourselves in the shoes of both the GM with the infinite budget, and the GM who can barely afford the salary floor…it also removes the aspect of the game that might teach a gamer a little bit about how the league works. Why not give teams an internal budget, and make sure the owner’s expectations correlate? That way, the player has to decide—just like real players and GMs have to decide—whether they want to go to the city with the huge budget and all the expectations of a shorter timeline, or to go to the tiny backwater and try to do something special. Between this and the coaching omission, Be a GM mode seems pretty outdated.
What the NHL games ultimately get right—even if they’re not trying to get it right, and it’s all coincidence—is their ability to simulate the utter chaos and unpredictability of this league. If I were simming a few seasons and saw Montreal finish third last one season and then win the east the next, I’d probably think there was a problem with the algorithms. But that’s hockey for you. And ultimately that’s EA’s Be a GM mode. It’s still addictive as hell, even if I would much rather play a no-frills, all-text simulator that truly puts you in the tough spots GMs face every day.
In conclusion, Be a GM Mode is a deeply stupid simulator. It’s fun, accessible, and very cartoony–just like everything else EA produces. But a cursory look around on the internet will reveal a whole host of much more thoughtful, deep, and comprehensive simulators available to you.