Stick-ing Points: Behind the Scenes with Joe Nickolls and NHL Slapshot

Every video game has a story, and NHL Slapshot is no exception, as the latest hockey title to emerge from EA’s Vancouver studio is as infamous for its controller as it is for anything on the disc. The conversation has been largely confined to athletic gaming circles, but one question remains. How did a wireless piece of plastic no bigger than your forearm become one of the more intriguing controller advancements of 2010?

The tale, as narrated by NHL Slapshot senior producer Joe Nickolls during a recent interview in Toronto, is fraught with audience uncertainty, international misunderstandings, and enough crosschecking to fill an NHL Hits highlight reel. It’s also a parable that relates to successful gameplay innovation, and on that account, it’s well worth retelling.

Strapping on the Skates

For those living under rocks – or perhaps living somewhere other than Canada – NHL Slapshot is a new Wii hockey game that introduces a unique Nintendo-licensed hockey stick controller. The contraption is a short, straight piece of hard plastic with a foam blade and separate compartments for the Wii remote and the nunchuck. You hold the stick with two hands and then you start playing hockey.

Or at least, that’s what it feels like. Unlike other sports games with instruction manuals that read like programming textbooks, NHL Slapshot is about as intuitive as it gets. To shoot, you shoot. To body check, you push the stick forward. To pass, you press A. Anything more than that, and you’re just showing off.

“The learning curve is one game,” said Nickolls, and he happens to be right. Slapshot makes a fantastic first impression that quickly turns skeptics into believers. Halfway through my first game, I’d already settled into the mindset of the enforcer, knocking people senseless anytime they were within crashing distance of the boards. It’s not the most graceful strategy, but it’s surprisingly physical and it’s a whole hell of a lot of fun.

From Page to Plastic

NHL Slapshot was first cooked up in order to fill a void in the EA Sports lineup. The company didn’t have a premiere hockey title to offer Wii owners, so they set out to make the best Wii hockey game that they could. That’s more or less what they’ve done, as NHL Slapshot combines the standard EA Sports career/franchise features with the motion control capabilities of the Wii.

That meant that Nickolls and his team literally had to reinvent the hockey stick. The first controller prototype was nothing more than a sawed-down stick with some Wii gear duct-taped to the handle. The final design is more refined, but the basic concept hasn’t changed. EA wanted to put the stick in player hands and collapse the barriers between person and machine.

Fortunately, EA Sports’ expertise made the rest of the development process relatively simple. Slapshot runs on the same engine as EA’s NHL ’11, and game design is much easier when you can walk across the hall and say, “Hey, can we borrow a cup of AI?” It took a team of 16 developers a mere 9 months to put NHL Slapshot together, all of which was needed to adequately prepare EA’s new peripheral for launch.

Nintendo is understandably protective of the Wii brand and they take quality control extremely seriously. To get them to sign off on a third-party peripheral, EA had to spend several months financing several rounds of intense stress testing to prove that the controller met Nintendo’s high design standards.

Nickolls says that the expenditure was worth it – EA is quite pleased with the finished product and is confident that any imitations will yield inferior results – but there were some unexpected snags. The Japanese are not known for their hockey prowess, or, as it turns out, for their hockey knowledge. Nickolls describes at least one meeting in which a man in a suit picked up the peripheral with one hand and started swinging it like a sword.

EA was eventually able to convince Nintendo that customers would know what to do with a miniature hockey stick – the peripheral is stamped with the official Wii logo – but the confusion hints at one of the major obstacles facing NHL Slapshot. A fake hockey stick just looks uselessly silly, and EA is battling the gimmicky preconceptions that plague many Wii peripherals.

Escaping the Penalty Box

The difference between the Slapshot hockey stick and, say, the Wii Maracas is that the stick actually enhances the overall gameplay experience. In that regard, EA’s controller belongs next to your plastic guitars in your collection of controller gimmicks that work, and Nickolls is quick to make the Guitar Hero comparison.

At first glance, the concept behind Guitar Hero is equally absurd as the concept behind NHL Slapshot, and it’s only after half a decade of strong sales that we’ve stopped questioning the premise of the former. With that in mind, EA is predicting that hockey fans will take to NHL Slapshot the way that music fans naturally took to Guitar Hero and Rock Band.

Those expectations are not without some merit. There’s just as much hero worship and celebrity fetishization in sports as there is in music, and many children grow up dreaming about the day that they’ll step onto the ice in the Bell Centre. NHL Slapshot feeds that vicarious desire better than any other sports game currently available. You’re not controlling the action so much as you’re in the action, and most people won’t require much corporate prodding.

That’s what makes NHL Slapshot such a conundrum. On the one hand, it’s one of the more accessible and immersive casual titles in recent memory, especially for anyone with a rudimentary understanding of hockey. EA wants your grandmother to play this game. The company focus tested NHL Slapshot for audiences aged 8-59, a range that represents the broadest test EA has ever conducted.

SEE ALSO:  An Interview With EA Sports NHL Producer Sean Ramjagsingh

The problem is that your grandmother probably doesn’t know that NHL Slapshot exists, while the people who do know that the disc is on shelves – namely, the game enthusiasts who have already purchased NHL ’11 – are likely still as skeptical as I was prior to the game’s release.

Line Changes

Hockey is practically synonymous with Canada – nobody here would try holding a stick with one hand – so the local reception may ultimately determine whether NHL Slapshot thrives or flounders. That’s not much of a surprise. Hockey is the national pastime, and while the NHL license isn’t solely responsible for filling EA’s coffers – as some delusional fans tend to assume – Nickolls says that NHL ’11 does approximately half of its business in Canada.

As for the other half, the general axiom is that where there’s snow, there’s hockey, and fans in climes like Minnesota, Pittsburgh, and Northern Europe are every bit as knowledgeable as their Canadian counterparts. The trick, however, is getting all of those potential customers to give Slapshot a chance.

The task is ironically made more difficult given EA’s prior success with the sport. NHL ’11 is an intricate, highly realistic hockey simulation that is already incredibly popular with hardcore fans, and NHL Slapshot isn’t going to unseat its parent. Knowing that, how do you persuade NHL fans to pick up a second hockey title when the first one is perfectly fine?

Nickolls explains that while there is some demographic overlap, NHL Slapshot caters to a slightly different audience than NHL ’11. For one thing, this is EA’s first foray into Wii hockey, and Slapshot isn’t in direct competition with a game exclusive to the PS3 and Xbox 360. For another, the NHL ’11 crowd is generally interested in a long-term commitment. Slapshot contains a fully realized franchise mode, but most people won’t want to stand for an entire 82-game season.

With Slapshot, EA is instead hoping to capture the attention of hockey fans that are otherwise disinterested in video games without insulting the more discerning tastes of NHL ’11 veterans. “We wanted Slapshot to have a casual appeal, but not alienate the more hardcore hockey gamers,” said Nickolls.  “We feel that we were able to appeal to both.”

I’m personally inclined to agree. NHL Slapshot rewards expertise – Joe skated circles around my team in our head-to-head confrontation – and the motion control foundation will draw hockey fans with little video game experience.

“We like to say, ‘the game is as deep or as shallow as you want it to be,’ and the same can be said about the stick controls,” continued Nickolls. “You can pick up the stick, skate around, take shots on net, body check, and have a great time, or you can master the controls: spin around defenders, stick lift, poke check, deke out the goalie, and slide it 5-hole.”

While the more practiced hockey gamers will appreciate the EA Sports pedigree, casual party appeal is more likely to set the game apart. Slapshot is a blast in five-to-ten minute bursts and – like Guitar Hero – it’s a good non-committal game to have in a social situation because it can be as much fun for the vanquished as it is for the victor.

“We expect Slapshot to do well with college students because it’s really fun, and those casual controls are really conducive of fast-paced, hard-hitting games, which are even better when you’ve got a couple friends with you and a couple extra sticks” added Nickolls. Toss in some mini-games and (maybe) a few beers, and “you’ve got yourself an all-nighter.”

Knowing the target audience helped EA tailor Slapshot for more casual sensibilities. You can play for the Stanley Cup immediately after opening the box and the Pee Wee mode – with its open-ice three-on-three dynamic and distinct lack of penalties – is a disarmingly adorable way to introduce the mechanics.

Then, of course, there are the hits. “It’s not a matter of if [players are] going to hit each other. It’s when,” observes Nickolls, and throwing body checks with reckless abandon is indeed one of the more seductive aspects of the game. I averaged about 20 hits per period, and even cover boy Wayne Gretzky – the quintessential on-ice gentleman – raves about NHL Slapshot’s bone-rattling charms.

“The first time Wayne got to try Slapshot he was really impressed with the hitting mechanic,” said Nickolls.  “[Wayne] said, “I love it because I never hit in my career and I get to hit in this game.”

Overtime

EA believes that Slapshot has the legs to last for more than one season, and the multi-year strategy made Wayne Gretzky a logical choice for the cover. It’s better to have a timeless icon than a flash-in-the-pan All-Star, even if it does make the game’s prospects difficult to evaluate.

The reality is that it will be a while before we know what kind of impact Slapshot has on the sports game landscape. The title could prove to be a slow burner, and it’s worth remembering that Guitar Hero didn’t become a phenomenon until the second installment hit shelves and capitalized on the word of mouth generated by the first.

Taken as it is, NHL Slapshot is a quality game that demonstrates that there are worthwhile controller ideas beyond the typical thumb/wand configurations. Even if the game never expands beyond a loyal niche market, EA deserves credit for doing something different and for doing it with purpose. It’s a brutal industry, and you’ve got to know your audience.