Hockey Central

Hockey Computer and Video Games

Even before the first face-off at the highly anticipated dream team competition at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, you could have found Japanese fans who never had seen a National Hockey League game, yet knew all about Dominik Hasek's acrobatics, Pavel Bure's speed and the velocity of Brett Hull's slapshot.

They played hockey on their computers.

"Young people love playing hockey games; they open the door to the NHL from PlayStation," Atsuo Kasamatsu, executive director of the NHL Fan Club in Japan and the father of two avid players, admitted to a newspaper reporter.

One of the most popular sports genres with video players worldwide, computer hockey games have heightened the interest of the game with younger fans in the last decade—maybe even more than television and satellite dishes. Industry figures claim that video hockey accounted for 2.2 percent of the 48 million games sold in 1997, which may not seem like a substantial quantity. But the quality of the games compared to other sport re-creation technology far surpasses the industry standards.

How good is it? Tomorrow, you might not be able to tell if the hockey game on the television set is the real deal or someone playing a video game. Computer technology has come as far and as fast as a slapshot from the other side of the rink that continues to pick up speed as it approaches the target. As a result, those who program these ever-popular games are just as baffled as you about what the next step will be with these cutting-edge toys for kids of all ages.

Artificial intelligence is the real buzzword here. It's the thing that computer-game companies like Electronic Arts, Acclaim, Virgin Interactive, Sony and Midway commit hours of research time to. The goal is to produce a hockey game that's as real as possible for consumer platforms like Sony PlayStation2, Game Cube and X Box (Live) and the standard desktop personal computer (who also can use broadband and transfer information over the Internet to play opponents online).

But then again, that's just the half of it.

"Our biggest challenge is to bring a balance of reality and entertainment," said Dave Warfield, the senior associate producer of EA's popular series of NHL games. "In the past, the emphasis was all about fun, getting shots off, making hits. Over the last few years, the feedback from the game players has dictated that we include as much realism as possible—add team strategy, forechecking, sone setups. That's exciting, but through all that, we can't lose sight of the fun element."

The genesis for video hockey goes back beyond the Sega Genesis (Mega Drive) many grew up with. The boom of video games in the early 1980s did not include many hockey titles, per se. As a child, many pre-video players can recall playing games like table hockey or Strat-o-matic dice-games, eventually graduating to the new and exciting dawn of the Atari 2600 "pong" game. For those with a little imagination, this was the first computer hockey, although the model definitely was more like tennis, because of the way the white dot would deflect off the paddles. Maybe that's a stretch for some. Mattel's Intellivision than can be credited with introducing the sport as a computer form of entertainment. Atari's first hockey try was a two-on-two version, followed by games like "Blades of Steel" and "Mutant Hockey League" on the Sega Genesis system.

Then came EA's "NHL '93." It set a standard of realism and entertainment that everyone—including EA's own game designers—has been trying to match since. By spring 1998, more then half-a-dozen NHL-licensed and approved games were on the market worldwide each trying to out do the other. Prices of today's products range from $40 to $60.

It only made the hockey games as a whole that much more superior to other sports games. PC Gamer magazine named EA's "NHL'98" the best sports game of the year during its annual reader survey. CNET.com, an online marketing tool of the Internet, did the same. Computer Game World magazine regularly lists as least two NHL video games among its top 10 monthly surveys of sports games.

While most hockey video games have become sophisticated enough to offer many of the same options, the difference is in the philosophy of those who produce and program each game, which can take more than a year to develop. With the trend toward using actual NHL players (although the gamers can create their own "players" by other means), the task for the programmer in charge of the artificial intelligence is to take all 650-plus NHL players each year and break down their game. That can lead to as many as 40 attributes—speed, stickhandling, shot accuracy, offensive and defensive awareness, for example. Bodychecking is another key element in the world of 3D animated physics—all players are programmed to their actual height and weight and according to what actually would happen if they were to check players bigger or smaller than themselves. From there, each quality is assigned a numerical value between 1 and 100. To help determine those numbers, game producers who in the past relied on general statistics that were available in any bookstore or magazine rack have become much more practical. What could be more lifelike than the players and coaches themselves? EA used the help of 1998 Canadian Olympic Coach Marc Crawford and Avalanche star Peter Forsberg on its "NHL '98" game. It incorporated the motion animation of Florida goalie John Vanbiesbrouck's butterfly saves, stack pads and numerous moves to depict his cyber-double.

Crawford marveled at how his actual game strategy could be transferred to another dimension.

"When playing hockey, the keys to victory depend on how well teams change their offensive and defensive strategy, depending on what type of situation they're up against," said Crawford, who also coached the 1998 Canadian Olympic team. "Teams play a different strategy when they are down by a goal or up by a goal. Or on the power-play or when killing a penalty, teams have to recognize their opponents' strengths and weakness and take advantage of them. In working with the EA Sports development team, we have a game to a point where it is now possible to have complete control over what type of strategy a team utilizes. It is amazing to think that interactive sports games have come so far as to simulate exactly what happens on the real ice."

Once the information is complied, the video game lead programmer takes it all into consideration when deciding how to control the physics of this virtual environment—i.e., how will the puck bounce off the boards when hit by a certain player a particular way. Add to that factors such as state-of-the-art motion capture to make the players look real—the polygonal players have digitized faces that come straight from actual photographs.

The result is a technological orchestration that allows both the programmer and game player to share in creating a virtual game on the TV screen. During the course of a typical video game session, the computer will make hundreds of split-second decisions about the players on the ice that are being controlled by the games as well. And that's where the fun begins.

"If a real player is skating down the wing, he's thinking about whether to pass or shoot, and that's one rating factored in by itself," EA's Warfield said. "Next, he sizes up whether it's a three-on-two or two-on-one situation, or whether he wants to cycle the puck or crash the net. Is he in the neutral zone or the offensive end? If it's a funnel play, the computer will tell if a player will move into a prime scoring area. Which player will decide to get in the way of the goalie while his teammate tries to get in the offensive area? All these decisions are programmed in based on what likely would happen in a real contest. And that's very important to the people who buy the games."

"To get another sense of what a typical video hockey game is about, consider the elements that go into NHL Power Play '98," developed by Vancouver-based Radical Entertainment and published by Virgin Interactive.

On the game packaging, it is explained this way: "Claude Lemieux doesn't check like Brind'Amour in real life—and he doesn't in NHL Power Play, either. Our Patrick Roy doesn't make gloves saves like the Dominator and you'll have a tough time beating our Beezer through the five hole. We use actual styles and ability to deliver the most realistic game."

And that's what makes all the difference.

"I think the real test is whether you're willing to play with the games that you make," said Ferdie Espedodo, who produced "NHL Power Play '98." "In the past, I think we played a lot of the competitors' games, but now we find our games much better and that's the one most of us play all the time. And that's the way it should be, right? Why would you expect anyone else to play your game if you aren't willing to play it yourself?"

"You need to find a happy medium for everyone. Just like in real life."

A PlayStation control pad allows the users to do dozens of specific things for each player. For example: press the square button on the right side, and the player on the screen shoots a wrist shot (if he's on offense), a hook and knee-sliding block (if he's on defense) or makes a save-and-smother action (if the goalie has the puck). Another button does things like drop passes, fake shots, flip passes or line changes, deflect and poke check, body check, skate backwards or dive on defense.

To start a typical game, gamers go through a checklist, starting with the decision on the level of competition (some allow for amateur, pro or All-Star) and in what format to play (exhibition, regular season, tournament, playoffs or world tournament), plus the length of the periods (five, 10, 15 or 20 minutes). They then activate or deactivate various elements of the game such as penalties (which, if left on, can occur for hooking, slashing, tripping, interference, cross-checking, boarding, elbowing, holding and a penalty shot), offsides, fatigue (which will determine whether a player becomes less efficient the more he is on the ice), line changes (can be done manually or automatic), plus coaching (allowing the player to determine offensive and defensive strategies instead of the computer).

Sometimes the players on the ice will even fight. Just like in real life.

Fighting is strictly monitored by the NHL and NHLPA, both on the ice and in computer environment. See what happens when two aggressive players knock into each other. Or don't use that element and play a slightly different game. This is how the "NHL Power Play" instruction booklet describes how fighting works in its game: "In these extreme situations (when two players become agitated), tempers will occasionally flare up in an expression of this aggression. Although the NHL and NHLPA in no way endorses fighting, it has been included as an option to offer full simulation of the sport."

Explained Ferdie Espedido: "The NHL only will allow a certain amount of fighting in these games. We're not saying fighting doesn't happen, but we have programmed that factor into each player—what are the odds of him fighting in certain real-life situations. There are those who are still the enforcers, but most of the time you'll see them playing on the fourth lines."

Although video game makers try to let parents know about the animated violence rating on the box, "NHL Power PLay" refers those who want to know to an 800-number. "NHL '98" ay offer the most elaborate controls for fighting once fisticuffs get under way. For example, one button allows for a jab, another to throw a hook, a third to unload a haymaker and a fourth to grab an opponent's sweater.

"The NHL went through a period where they wouldn't permit fighting at all on their games, but we convinced them that's what the fans demanded," said EA's Warfield. "They're more on-board now. They just don't want us to portray an ugly side or take it too far. In a true hockey fight, it's a lot of grappling. We kind of went for the 'arcade-type' punchin. I think we do have to be careful of the image of the game. Again, it's finding that balance, and what the artificial intelligence tweaking can do."

And if realism seems to be too real, there are always those games trying to lean the other way. "NHL Open Ice," for example, a product of Midway Games for GT Interactive, allows for some spectacular events you'd never see on NHL ice. How about Bure spinning three times in the air about 30 feet above the ice, then launching a shot of such power that the puck and the net catch fire? Or an option button where the goalies can have regular of super-sized heads? The popular "Wayne Gretzky 3D Hockey," followed up by "Wayne Gretzky's 3D Hockey '98," has similar features for those who enjoy playing on Nintendo 64 systems, where graphics often take on a life of their own.

Another interesting aspects of how far video games have come—and hockey video games in particular—is how television production has adapted to the game's presence to maintain a fresh, contemporary look. Whereas television once might have dictated how video games were presented, the reverse is more true these days. So while video game programmers try all they can to recreate the real-life effects, TV producers are constantly trying to duplicate graphic enhancements. And, for better or worse, we have things like the glowing puck that Fox Television introduced on its weekly games. The intent is to make is easier for those at home to follow the puck. The reaction from fans who've followed the puck for years on TV without any help has been mixed.

Additionally, camera angles can be adjusted on most all games, allowing the gamer—not the programmer—to choose from a high, low, up, down, left, right or overhead shot. A video game has a huge advantage over TV in that regard. The most common angle on the video screen is an angle that shows the action from a vertical, or north-to-south, overhead. Logistical restrictions prevent TV from covering a game any other way except to pan right to left from mid-ice.

"Since the beginning of video games, NHL fans are used to playing what they're used to seeing," said Warfield. "They have to have an attachment. We try to look like TV, but in our case, our camera doesn't have to be in a particular location, and the beauty is they can move to any height at any time in the game, and game players love to see that new perspective. Without those limitations, we can go deeper into a game with all this data we can store in the computers."

It follows that replays also are available to the game player, again from all angles, to heighten the excitement and duplicate another realistic quality. And, to circumvent the technological boundaries, real life NHL broadcasters like Jim Hughson and Daryl Reaugh have been employed to make calls on the "NHL '98" game. Broadcasters who are affiliated with video games must go into a recording studio and repeat hundreds of phrases that they'd say during an actual hockey game. When a similar play occurs in a video game, the computer inside is able to retrieve that sound bite and incorporate it as if it happened as part of the flow. With today's (and tomorrow's) technology so advanced, broadcasters actually can call a game as if they were sitting in the living room watching the action.

The cost of making video hockey games increases every year because of the increasingly complex technology as companies have to continue to hire the top programmers and audio people from around the world to improve the product. But companies who sell them in large quantities try to keep the prices relatively constant as the competition heightens. They then try to make up for the extra costs by selling a greater volume of games.

Personal computer requirements for hockey games continue to become more demanding as the information expands and allows enthusiasts to compete online with other players. Around North America, PC users have caught on to the fantasy league craze, using DOS-based software that brings a statistical realism to computer screens. Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based APBA has a strong following of PC users.

As for the future of video games, Espedido figures they will always be "more complex to build. As developers we have to keep our ears to the public and access the market. Do they want more realism or more fanfare?"

Warfield predicts that "the realism only will get better and better. The audio will continue to improve. There will be a point when you wear things like virtual reality wrap goggles so you fell as if you're on the ice as well, playing right along with everyone else."

From a gamer's viewpoint, the result could be as dramatic as those who've learned to, say, operate real airplanes based on their constant playing with joysticks on video games.

The more a gamer learns the Xs and Os involved in the sport of hockey, the more chance he or she will grow up that much more ahead of the game as a player or a coach. At some point, parents may realize that all that time their children are spending in front of the video screen actually will pay off. Could video hockey games be part of the required training for real players? We should be able to answer that in the very near future.