Gamers ready to tackle Madden

Newest installment of football series is on shelves today

August 09, 2005|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Fourth down and seven. Patrick Blair's Indianapolis Colts are losing, 13-8, with just two minutes left in the game. Thirteen-year-old Patrick, at the controls of an Xbox at an Electronics Boutique store yesterday, tells his friend and competitor, Colby Giacubeno, "I'm going up the gut, I'm telling you right now."

Colby, also 13, replies, "I'm sending everybody." Patrick passes the ball, Colby intercepts and runs it back for a touchdown.

"See ya! See ya!" Colby taunts as one of his Atlanta Falcons sprints down the field. "You're done."

And so is the game they were playing, Madden 2005. The newest version of the game, Madden NFL '06, will be released today, and Colby, along with thousands of others, plans to purchase a copy and play all day long. The Madden football game has sold 43 million copies for its developer, Electronic Arts, since its debut in 1989, and millions of the newest iteration are expected to fly from the shelves of video game stores faster than a Jamal Lewis touchdown drive.

Some stores, including the Electronics Boutique and Power Gamer, both in Towson, were opening at midnight to accommodate the rush. The game is being released for five video game systems, with a suggested retail price of $49.99 for most versions.

Some gamers, though, have grumbled that Electronic Arts is focusing too much on sequels at the expense of original games. That dissatisfaction may put a dent in the company's revenues this year - Electronic Arts estimates they will be between $3.3 billion and $3.4 billion, a slight decline from earlier forecasts.

Still, the Madden game continues to enjoy a loyal following.

"It's the best game on the market, period," said Tavohn Chappel, 18, who was playing Madden 2005 at Power Gamer in the Towson Town Center yesterday. He said he would buy the 2006 version early this morning. "As soon as I get it, I'm going home to play."

The Baltimore resident wanted to learn the game's tricks before playing against his friends later in the day. "My friends who play Madden - they do it all the time," he said.

This year's game, in addition to the usual update of team rosters, adds a "Quarterback Vision and Precision" feature, which creates an illuminated cone of vision for the quarterback that allows the gamer to place the ball more precisely. Quarterbacks with better NFL stats have larger cones of vision.

Also, the new Madden game is adding a "Superstar" feature that allows the gamer to control a football player's off-field life, from selecting his parents to hiring an agent, entering the NFL draft and renting an apartment.

"People are always curious about what players are doing off the field," said Wendy Spander, a spokeswoman for Electronic Arts, the industry's largest video game maker.

The game has inspired tournaments across the country and taught its fans a thing or two about the actual game of football. John Madden, the TV commentator and football legend who has a hand in the game's development, has insisted that the game reflects reality.

"I watch football now, and I can say, `That's a dime play' or `That's a nickel,'" said Darron Carter, 24, of Baltimore, referring to defensive formations. "It's like real football," says Carter, who owns every version of the game. "Anything you want to do, you can do."

Because Electronic Arts signed an exclusive agreement with the National Football League, for a reported $400 million over five years, the Madden game is the only one on the market that has the actual teams and rosters of the NFL. That ability to be, say, Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens is invaluable for video gamers, experts say.

"We see these players every Sunday [on TV], and we feel like this is a way of becoming closer to them, or in a small way feeling what it's like to be in their shoes and on the field," said Brian Ekberg, sports editor for GameSpot.com, a leading video game news and review site.

"You want some kind of connection to a team, more so than just rooting for them or going to a game," Ekberg said. "This gives you an opportunity, if you're a [Chicago] Bears fan, to actually win."

Electronic Arts remains the industry's largest video game maker, even as its new releases are largely sequels rather than originals. Of the 26 games it is releasing this year, for example, only three are original.

But the company says several major new games are in the works and that one - The Godfather, based on the popular film series - was delayed from this year to next. The company also defends the sequels as providing consistent upgrades demanded by fans.

And many of those fans will eagerly snap up the new Madden game starting today.

"This has been the knock against sports games for a long time now. People say it's just another roster update, or it's just a few new features," Ekberg said. "But for the hard-core sports gamer, that's enough. Gamers want the most realistic view of their sport."

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