THW Exclusive: Inside ‘Old Time Hockey’

TheHockeyWriters sits down with “Old Time Hockey” Game Director, Karthik Venkateshan to discuss the game and its release on the PlayStation 4 on March 28. With its homage to games like Blades of Steel and the earliest EA Sports NHL Hockey games, “Old Time Hockey” will connect with older gamers who remember the classics that redefined the industry. However, with Xbox One and Switch versions on the way, as well as a story mode and a lot of research from the development team that captures the essence of the 1970s style of NHL play, “Old Time Hockey” has the potential for a strong release this Spring.

The Hockey Writers: How was this game born?

The hockey action in “Old Time Hockey” will remind you of classic puck games on the Nintendo and Sega Genesis (V7 Entertainment)

Karthik Venkateshan: Old Time Hockey has been a passion project we have been working on since the garage days of V7 Entertainment back in 2010. It started out as a small hockey fighting (only) experience as we felt the depth and difficulty of fighting on the ice warranted its own video game. That was the core thought process behind working on the title at the beginning – in hockey games fighting has traditionally been an afterthought, arguably underrepresented, and have no real consequences that carry over to the gameplay after the fights. But within a hockey fighting experience alone, we could not deliver that message. From there on, we built the hockey elements around it and our core messaging for the design of the game was playing hockey with aggression and intimidation which naturally led to fights, fatigued players, injured players, etc. The design choices naturally asked

Development

THW: What was development like?

Venkateshan: Fun, but brutal. Given we are a young and inexperienced team (“Who are these guys?”) where most of us are taking on responsibilities and challenges that we have never handled before, it was an extremely stressful journey that tested the founders’ perseverance beyond anything we have imagined. We are all big fans of “Slap Shot” here and we have watched the movie countless times that we routinely quoted lines from the movie which expressed our own toils of working on this game.

THW: Any fun stories or wild moments?

Venkateshan: Beer mode stories always stand out. So, when we were doing focus groups, outside of the workplace ones, I routinely took the game over to my buddy’s to see how they liked any recent changes and what not. Once the Beer Mode was in, every single time I brought the game over, given I am the developer and they wanted to handicap me, they would force the Beer Mode on me and get me smashed. The Beer Mode is fun, but also hard especially if not everyone playing is on beer mode, as you are limited to just one hand and a couple buttons. Couple that with some cold ones and they are lighting you up!

THW: What are your favorite hockey games and how did they inspire this one?

Fighting is a huge part of the game (V7 Entertainment)

Venkateshan: Mutant League Hockey, Blades of Steel, NHL 93 & 94. Old Time Hockey definitely has inspirations drawn from all of those games in varying capacities and we have paid our tribute to those iconic retro games in both the design and gameplay feel of Old Time Hockey. In some ways, OTH combines all the elements of those iconic retro games and adds a whole other dimension when it comes to the possibilities of line brawls, bench brawls, stick fights, and goalie fights which wasn’t really possible in those old hockey games.

In terms of real hockey, we have watched a good number of 70s games in order to really mimic and bring that atmosphere in some capacity into our own universe of the Bush Hockey League. One game that always stands out to me personally from that era, you know it, the 1976 Flyers vs. Red Army game where the Flyers’ notorious ways came as an unpleasant surprise to the visiting Red Army.

Gameplay and Goals

THW: There are 10 teams in the game, who are they inspired by?

Venkateshan: The teams in the Bush Hockey League are placed in towns where there is some historical connection to the game of hockey. Most of the towns represented are deemed the Birthplaces of Hockey. For instance, we chose Fort Edward Colonel John Hockey, based on whom the game of Hockey is named after, and served in Fort Edward. Also, the first ever hockey sticks were made in the region by the Mi’kmaq carvers. Cobalt is represented as they were one of the early teams to have paid their players to play hockey. If my memory serves me right, I remember reading that Cobalt’s hockey team was so affluent and their desire to win their local rival game was so high that they brought in a ringer in the legendary Art Ross and paid him something like a $1000 back in the early 1900s to play one game.

Also, the first ever hockey sticks were made in the region by the Mi’kmaq carvers. Cobalt is represented as they were one of the early teams to have paid their players to play hockey. If my memory serves me right, I remember reading that Cobalt’s hockey team was so affluent and their desire to win their local rival game was so high that they brought in a ringer in the legendary Art Ross and paid him something like a $1000, back in the early 1900s, to play one game.

THW: Talk about the play-by-play. How big of a factor is it in the overall feel of the game?

Not only are there line fights in “Old Time Hockey,” but bench-clearing brawls as well. (V7 Entertainment)

Venkateshan: We have play-by-play in the game courtesy of a local (Vancouver) radio host Matt Baker. We had to find the right line between not having any commentary versus having too much commentary. We really wanted to keep it simple like those old games, but not so bare bones that it just boils down to Blades of Steel like commentary. I think we managed to find that fine line and he has some funny lines here and there. My favorite line is when the game’s scoreline gets out of control and the commentator goes: ‘They are going to run out of electricity on the scoreboard tonight.’

THW: How does this game disrupt the hockey game landscape?

Venkateshan: If I could pick two things, it would be the brawls (line and bench brawls) and the Story Mode. Both aspects were never done before in a hockey video game ever and we hope we have added to the history of hockey video games by putting these features out.

THW: What’s the Story Mode like?

Venkateshan: It’s a lot of fun. It is a unique first take on what narratives in a season for Hockey would look and play like. You take hold of a team that is really down and out on its luck and you play through their journey of turning their fortunes around. We have placed some cool hockey references from the past and we hope core hockey fans get nostalgic and take a fun trip down the memory lane of how Hockey was back then.

The story itself is told through Newspaper clippings, written radio interviews, hockey trading cards, comic book style loading screens, and scripted games. The games themselves are filled with specific objectives to complete such as ‘Get 20 hits,’ or ‘Get the starting goalie pulled,’ or ‘Win a stick fight,’ etc. the completion of which helps boost your stats and make your team better.

THW: Who will enjoy this game the most?

Venkateshan: I think any hockey fan will love this take on a hockey video game. But any hockey fan who lived through and watched hockey games from the 1970s would get a great kick out of all the references and inspirations from the 70s we have thrown in there.

The Future

THW: What are your goals for the game?

If you enjoy the rough stuff, “Old Time Hockey” is a game that delivers it in droves. (V7 Entertainment)

Venkateshan: It would mean a lot to us if Hockey fans genuinely enjoyed our delivery of the Story Mode and our overall representation of ‘Never look at the puck, just take the body’ mechanics. In terms of sales, we don’t have crazy expectations but it would be great if we received enough support to be able to do another one. We have learned a lot through this experience and we realize there is a lot of room for improvement. We have so much more in mind in terms of how to take this to the next level, particularly with the Story Mode we want to do real cinematics with the characters talking and what not. We are also very aware that fans want online, create a player, and other familiar features that have become mandatory over the years in the video games industry.

THW: What’s next?

Venkateshan: Getting the game released on Xbox One and Switch. Also, at least one DLC with 10 more teams. The farm teams to the Bush Hockey League.

Screenshots, Click to Enlarge:

NHL 16

First Impressions of EASHL and NHL 16

Hockey and video game fans alike have been given a special treat from EA Sports, the creators of NHL 16. The company released a limited beta for the game’s popular EA Sports Hockey League (EASHL) game mode for its Xbox One and PlayStation 4 players who had purchased NHL 15 the previous year. A code given to players of both consoles via email, players have the opportunity to play the beta from July 30 up until August 7.

Gamers who had the One and PS4 were extremely upset last season when NHL 15 came out without the EASHL game mode on the new systems but was placed on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Although EASHL in NHL 15 wasn’t much different from what was on the previous year’s game, gamers weren’t thrilled to be without one of the most popular game modes in the NHL games.

EA promised to not only return EASHL to NHL 16, but to improve it immensely, much like they promised the rest of the game. From game play to actual functions inside of EASHL itself, the beta has given fans a chance to experience NHL 16 firsthand before it hits stores, and also allows players to provide feedback while EA works out the rest of the bugs before the release date in mid-September. After playing the beta over the past few days, here is what I have found to be some of the best improvements to the game, and what could still use work. Thanks to fellow writer and gamer  Michael Straw for their input.

Customization

One of the coolest parts of EASHL over the years has been the ability to edit your skater or goaltender to make him or her look as much like you as humanly possible. EA has done a nice job of doing this, but they took it a step further this year. With complaints from game players about a lack of ability to edit current players in the game that looked nothing like the player in real life, the creators at EA made a concerted effort to open up editing for every player in the game. This has led to your capabilities in EASHL editing to be even more in-depth in NHL 16.

NHL 16From stick tape patterns to different color shades of tape, making your player unique has never been this much fun. If you aren’t careful, you can spend hours on the beta simply messing around with your character and making it to your likeness. Details as precise as beard length and the addition of things like leg tape and skate guards are added into the beta to enhance customization even further than in the past.

Even the team you create in NHL 16 is given more uniqueness with the new system. Now Mike “Doc” Emrick and Eddie Olczyk have the ability to say the name of your team that is given by you when you create your EASHL team. From standard team names to ridiculous ones you and your friends can get extremely creative when you create you team and team name, while at the same time getting the name recognition on-screen from one of the best announcers in the National Hockey League.

Even Playing Field

One thing you won’t see on your player customization screen in NHL 16 is the attributes field. That’s due to the EASHL’s creation of player classes. EA has claimed that the addition of these 12 classes will put more of an emphasis on player skill and your abilities to play together as a team, creating a better competitive experience on the ice. In my limited playing time, I’ve only seen three or four of the classes be utilized, but I can already say that the player class system is a vast improvement to the game. If you’re a college student, like myself, you don’t necessarily have as much time to play EASHL and rank up your skater or goaltender, which put you at a severe disadvantage when you go online and play. Now with the class system, there is no need to worry about that anymore. On top of that, a sniper or playmaker does not have the same checking ability as a grinder or enforcer, making it much more realistic than in NHL 15 when a 5’9 winger was able to drop a 240 pound defenseman if he simply came at him with a great deal of speed.

Every team, no matter how much or how little you play, has the same 12 classes with the same statistics for each class. The emphasis is now placed on your abilities in-game and how well you work with your teammates as opposed to how many hours you log. Granted, playing more will make you and your friends better, but you won’t find yourself over matched due to experience points or having a less skilled skater than opposing players. In the four games I played on the first day of the beta, I went 2-1-1, with my only loss being 1-0 and my best win being 5-1. If you are a more skilled game player than your opponent you will most likely come up with the victory, which has not been the case over the past few years, and I think the casual gamer will appreciate that.

AI Intelligence

I think it was fair to say that the non-player controlled skaters in EASHL could used some work. Well early on it appears that the makers at EA have done a great job with that, improve the overall skill of the computer players. I first noticed a change when my team went onto their first penalty kill. One of my computer defenseman picked up the puck in the defensive zone and cleared it down the ice without hesitation. My computer generated winger then proceeded down the ice on the forecheck to pin the opposing team in their own defensive zone. Both of these things rarely happened with the AI computers, if at all, in previous games.

Along with more realistic game play and evening the playing field among players, it appears that EA also put a heavy emphasis on making the computer-controlled players on each team more competent. The computers appear to fill in the lanes on the rush better and are much smarter on the rush on whether or not to shoot the puck or pass it off (without having to call for it). Players classes and more intelligent computerized players in this beta alone have greatly improve the EASHL experience.

What Needs Work

This game is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. I admittedly haven’t tried playing in goal, which supposedly has vast improvements this year, or played as a defenseman, but from what I have done as a forward there are a few things that EA can work on before September.

EA has preached gameplay balance and more realistic skating in their videos leading up to the beta, but it doesn’t appear that it is fully operational just yet. Skating is certainly slower than it was in NHL 15, allowing for the more precise movements feature above, but the precision aspect itself still looks like it needs some work.

There also seems to be a bit of a delay between taking shots or making passes and them actually registering in the game. Sometimes shots were attempted on the controller but didn’t register on the screen. The same went for passes, and by the time they were made, if done at all, the play originally set up had already fallen apart. Also the board play in-game, which had seen significant improvements over the past two games, has seemed to have taken a step back in this beta.

But this isn’t a shock to the makers of the game. EA has come out and said that there are a few bugs that still need to be worked out and for gamers to be patient as they make these improvements in time for September. They are even leaving a feedback link on the beta for players to put in their suggestions on how to improve the game.

Aside from giving fans of the NHL franchise a chance to try out their newest game, the release of the beta is also a way for fans to interact personally with the creators in order to voice their displeasure with the game before it comes out so they have a chance to fix it. This makes your input crucial to the success of NHL 16. Play the beta, see what you like and don’t like and submit that feedback to EA so they can have a chance to alter it before September.

Since this is just a beta that is being put out a month and a half before the game’s release, I will give EA the benefit of the doubt in that the skating will improve come the September and some of the other minor bugs noted above will be taken care of as well. Overall, though, I think that NHL 16, particularly EASHL, will be an enjoyable video game from the play-every-day gamer to the casual game player.