I grew up in the cold northeast of America and spent my winters playing ice hockey on ponds and lakes throughout New England, so I was terribly excited when EA announced that NHL 19 will have a dedicated pond hockey mode.
Pond hockey in NHL 19 takes the form of NHL Ones, which invites players to join up with two others for a 1v1v1 shootout on outdoor rinks.
Fans watch from the sidelines, shivering in winter jackets, while animals can be seen in the background. Pond hockey is considered the purest form of the sport, and in NHL 19’s pond hockey mode=, there are basically no rules and absolutely no whistles. It’s all about keeping the puck, deking your opponents with skill moves, and scoring goals. There are four different outdoor rinks, and you advance to the next one each time you win. The leaderboards reset every day, so you’re encouraged to come back all the time.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with senior producer Sean Ramjagsingh about pond hockey in NHL 19. We had a long chat about the origins of the mode, what forms of prototyping it went through, and how it might help the NHL franchise reach even more players. The interview is below, edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
You can check out GameSpot’s NHL 19 review here.
GameSpot: How long have you been planning this, and where did the idea come from?
Ramjagsingh: I think it’s an evolution to be honest with you. So if you go back even before we launched NHL 18 … we’re always about sort of authenticity. You know with an EA Sports game you’re going to get to play with the real players, the real uniforms, the real arenas, and try to have as many of the details absolutely served on point. We’re going to deliver that every single year. So, last year as it started with NHL 18, we started to look for opportunities to branch out and reach a wider audience and appeal to a wider audience. And lower the barrier of entry into the experience as well.
You know, as games have become sort of more complex as consoles have come through with more power and controllers now have more buttons, it’s become like a barrier entry for a lot of people. So we want to try to lower that barrier of entry and that’s where pond hockey came from. And then after we saw the way the Threes really resonating with people, we continued down the path of we’re absolutely going to be as authentic as possible to the sport which is what we focus on in the skating and hitting to really improve our gameplay.
But then how do we move beyond these licenses that we have and the NHL and be more inclusive of hockey as it’s played in all different forms around the world? What’s that actually look like? You know, the NHL has the authentic version of outdoor hockey with the Winter Classic.
My earliest memories was it never really got cold enough for the pond to freeze over here very much, but a lot of my buddies are on the east coast. Their earliest memories are playing on backyard rinks and grabbing their stick and their skates and hoodie and walking out to their local pond that was frozen over for months of the winter to play. And so many stories of all the NHL players that have grown up in throughout Canada and the eastern parts of the US and really, really cold climates in the winter time. I mean, winter time was meant, you know, stories of playing in the the backyard rink ’til all hours of the rink. Or finding your nearest pond and skating on the pond with your buddies ’til all hours of the night. So part of the fabric, it’s part of the culture of hockey. And so that’s really where the idea came from, how do we continue to, you know, push the boundaries and have a more inclusive experience that better represents hockey as it’s played in all sports around the world.
GameSpot: Did you have this in mind for any previous games?
Ramjagsingh: If you go back to the previous generation, sort of pre NHL 14, we had some of the Winter Classics in the game. Because the NHL was going down that, you know, the outdoor event path for a little bit and still are. So we put those in the game and what we saw was, it’s a lot of work to create those outdoor environments. You need to have outdoor-specific lighting and models of the arenas and all those things that come with it. It’s fairly substantial amount of work to create one of those outdoor arenas. And then we put them in the game and it’s almost as like a novelty item. I think that’s the best way to describe it. So people would be like “Awesome, I get to play the Winter Classics outdoors.” Go in there, play it and play now. There was no reason to continue to come back and play it. It wasn’t integrated into our online space, it wasn’t integrated really into any real core modes, it wasn’t in franchise mode. So it was kind of like a novelty piece; a really expensive novelty piece you can go in and check it out and then probably never go back there.
And then your buddy comes over and you probably show him once and you never really go back because there wasn’t a reason to play. The fans have been asking for Winter Classics and outdoor arenas and things like that and the answer up until this year has been: we want to get back, we absolutely want to get back to that but want to find out when’s the right time. When we do go back to sort of outdoor arenas, or ponds, or whatever it ends up being, we’ve gotta do it in a way that’s integrated deeper into the product itself. It’s gotta … create motivation so people want to come back and play over and over and over.
So, when we started talking about building up the World of Chel, and creating the experiences where people, and they don’t have all their friends online right now so they can’t go play EA Sports Hockey League 3 v 3 or 6 v 6aAnd don’t want to play in an arcade-inspired mode like NHL Threes, they can just drop in and play this outdoor Ones mode. Dial into the fact that if we know that people don’t always have a half hour, you know, 20 minutes to a half hour to play a game all the time. So can we fit a shorter experience that kind of rolls over to the next experience and the next experience. Combine all those elements and create this super compelling mode outdoors that gives people a way to play more casually when their friends aren’t online and tie that entire experience into the greater ecosystem of the World of Chel.
GameSpot: Are the locations based on real world places and how many of them will there be for Pond Hockey?
Ramjagsingh: Yeah, so there’s four different locations that we built out and they’re not authentic to anywhere specifically but they are sort of, I would say that they’re absolutely inspired by places from around the world. We wanted to have that kind of progression where you start off in sort of a little parking lot playing, to the docks, and up the cove and to the main sort of arena. The main arena with Windsor being two hours away from us here in Vancouver. You know, a lot of sort of big events, Red Bull type of events happening in Windsor. Loosely inspired by sort of center stage at Windsor for one of the Red Bull events.
I think Lake Louise, another sort of beautiful place, was part of the inspiration too. You’ll see featured elements of Lake Louise in there. And we just took reference from you know, some of the coolest kind of ponds around and we created our own fictitious outdoor rinks. But inspired definitely by some real world places.
GameSpot: Did you think about the wackier side of pond hockey like cracked ice and falling into the water?
Ramjagsingh: When we’re in the early creative process, for all of our features, not just for outdoor Ones, and especially coming off the heels of what we did with the arcade-inspired Threes, there’s lots of discussion about where does this, what is the purpose of this mode, where’s this mode stand, what’s the experience you want to deliver.
You know, how super core do you want this experience to be versus how casual take up of play would you want to see. What are the time considerations for the length of the experience you want to deliver. Do we want to continue down the path of arcade-inspired over-the-top? Do we want to go more over the top then we did with Threes and have like power-ups and cracking ice and people falling through the ice. In the initial brainstorm phase we went everywhere with this. And then sort of brought it back to key in on our idea of what mattered most to liven up the experience.
We explored every single option with it. The main points of contention around sort of how our arcadey- versus how core and how where should that mode have been? The original version of that mode was actually 1 v 1 v 1 v 1.
And having four players on the edge was actually a little bit too chaotic, too hard to score; the experience wasn’t quite fun enough. We started experimenting with just three skaters on the ice and it ended up being super fun so that’s where we landed. I guess the short answer to your question is we explored every thing from super arcade to really really hard core. We made this decision based on a lot of discussion and collaborating we did.
GameSpot: Playing with friends on the pond … you don’t normally hit people as hard as is seen in Ones. Why keep the hits in?
Ramjagsingh: I think if you could assure yourself that you’re on the pond with your friends and you can throw those big hits and no one would get hurt, you might want to actually throw hits in. It’s also a critical piece to maintaining the balance that we have with all different player classes. So choosing to explore or enforce the defense of using the hitting as a skill versus going more with a sniper play maker where you can’t actually throw those hits and sort of taken whatever player class fits your style of play. The hits are one of my favorite things to do is the mode is when the puck ends up in the corner there. It turns into a mini game of who’s gonna go in first, and risk taking the hit and is the second guy gonna go in there too and then if you’re the third guy and you’re gonna force your player to knock over both guys and come out there with the puck.
So it adds some really really interesting sort of gameplay elements as well. And so, a lot of times when you watch, prior to NHL 19, a lot of times when you watch the best players of the game, play our game, they rarely ever go for hits because it takes them out of position. The risk/reward isn’t there for them. But you see now when you hear some of our core guys talking about outdoor Ones and talking about hitting as a feasible strategy for trying to win in Threes, it’s speaks to our focus on the balance of the game with all our player classes and the way they play the game.
GameSpot: Can you talk about some of the feedback you got about pond hockey from the NHL 19 beta earlier this year?
Ramjagsingh: We played a lot with the slider of where we landed in terms of how it plays relative to core player expectations versus more casual expectations. That was where I would say the bulk of our iteration took place is just trying to get the right experience there. So we landed with something that is faster than regular gameplay, harder hitting then sort of our more authentic kind of online setting kind of gameplay as well. Then we ended up focusing a lot on our goalies. Tune the goalies and making sure the goalies were making the right reach based on having three players on the ice and things like that.
GameSpot: This mode seems like it could’ve been something perfect for a college dorm room or university with people just playing on the couch. Could you talk about why you wanted to make it online only?
Ramjagsingh: We started with the online space and still have the online experience and trying to create competition within that mode itself. After the beta, a lot of people have been asking for a couch version of Ones to sit in their dorm room and play with your buddies so that is absolutely something that we hear from our fans. And something we’re thinking about moving forward. Where it lands, I’m not sure, but absolutely we hear the feedback that the next sort of logical step for Ones is to have a couch play version of it.
GameSpot: I’m curious what your expectations are for pond hockey considering it’s really only known and fully appreciated by people who live in cold-weather places?
Ramjagsingh: Yeah, you’re right and I don’t think everyone’s going to truly understand sort of the cultural relevance of pond hockey which is why the gameplay experience. That’s why nailing the experience is and was more important than the outdoor part of it. The outdoor part is sort of the cool, kind of flashier piece, but if the experience, the gameplaying experience doesn’t hold up that doesn’t matter where you’re playing. Whether you’re playing on the moon or outdoor pond hockey.
So the experience is always sort of king in these things but understand that not everyone’s going to understand the relevance and cultural relevance of pond hockey. But for those that do, they absolutely get it.
GameSpot: Do you have weather elements like snow coming down?
Ramjagsingh: Nope, no. We don’t have snow coming down. We’ve got some animals, some wildlife in there cruising around. But you’ll see. And then for each one of the different rinks, there’s fours different tiers of our outdoor arenas that we have; they’re all different times of day and have slightly different lighting on them as well. The final tier, the main stage takes place at night, under kind of the bright lights. So we play with lighting, not a whole lot with specifically with weather but there’s some dynamic weather elements like the snow falling off the trees and then we have some wildlife too.
GameSpot: How does pond hockey progression work in NHL 19?
Ramjagsingh: You start off in sort of our tier four arena, or outdoor rink which is the parking lot. When you win you tier up, ultimately to our diamond rink, our main rink which is under the bright lights. The goal is to accumulate as many wins as you can on the main stage. At the end of every day, we’ll crown a winner, a daily champion where you get huge rewards for being that guy.
GameSpot: What are some of the customisation options you can unlock?
Ramjagsingh: We have everything from cargo pants to skinny jeans to hoodies. You can wear an NHL jersey over top of a hoodie. We’ve got some knittable caps that are intuitive here in Canada. We’ve got some Canadian tuxedos in there as well. Jean jackets and things like that.
So all different types of parka jackets, pullover jackets, hoodies, all types of different pants, cargo pants, outdoor pants, things like that. We have some cool kind of skates designs as well that you can unlock. Some cool sticks, one of my favorite things that we have an NHL 94 stick that you can unlock. A lot of gear that is new to the NHL franchise and a little bit out there. The real focus for us was allowing our players to unlock different customization elements that allows them to really sort of personalize the way that they look and allowed to express themselves on the ice.
GameSpot: Can you talk about some of the other pieces of feedback you got from the beta and how that’s impacting the final game?
Ramjagsingh: The most polarizing piece of feedback that we got through the beta was just around poke checking versus penalties, the balance there. I think initially day one, day two, people felt like, “how does outdoor pond hockey work when you can’t get penalties,” but this was probably the most polarizing event you got where the poke checking versus penalization. It took people a day or two. At first people were like, “There’s way too many penalties.” After day two, people are like, “It’s perfect just the way it is.”
GameSpot: What kind of future do you see for pond hockey in the NHL games going forward? Do you think of it as more of an experiment or more of something that really going to be in there for a long time to come?
Ramjagsingh: Pond hockey specifically I’m not sure. But I will say that sort of Pond Hockey represents to me the first step in really trying to be more inclusive of all the different forms of hockey played around the world. I think that’s the macro goal for us; is just to kind of capture the different ways that the sport is played and a different sort of cultural aspects of hockey around the world. And then continue to evolve. So whether that’s more ponds or authentic ponds like the ones you grew up playing on, that’s one direction that we could go but we’re trying, really trying to figure that out right.
What are the other leagues that are out there, the summer leagues that are out there as well. What is the role of the summer leagues, the beer leagues going on right now in Minnesota. What roles do those leagues play moving forward. So it’s really about how do we continue to be, how do we continue to be as authentic as possible with our license experiences with the NHL but also be sort of more inclusive of sort of hockey that’s played all around the world.
GameSpot: How much attention is it getting overall inside the studio. Has it been completely a massive undertaking that’s really taken up a lot of people’s time or just can you talk about the work flow dynamic and how it’s changed from you know, when you didn’t have it to when you have it now?
Ramjagsingh: Pond hockey, the outdoor hockey is just a one element within the World of Chel. So, the World of Chel itself, we essentially rebuilt the online cache from the ground up. One is the sort of common progression across all these multiple different modes. It was really important if you look at some of the best games out there right now that have really short, you know outside sports genre, have really short experiences that you roll right over into the next experience. It’s almost harder to leave the experience as it is to stay in and play the next version of the game.
We had to rewrite our cache. So that’s where the bulk of the effort went, let’s rewrite the text that enables us to deliver the experiences that we delivered. Also it was foundational work for us to continue that and continue to build on, build new experiences on top and add new features toi. Whether they’re another version of pond hockey, another sort of mode in itself or whether it’s just optimizing the experience and the flows and the ability of people to connect with one another.
GameSpot: Is there anything else really that you think people really absolute need to know about pond hockey.
Ramjagsingh: Oh man, I mean, for me it’s pond hockey is a huge pond mode to play where if you only have five minutes to maybe hop in and play five minutes of pond hockey and get through a game. If you win you roll right, next game if you lose you roll right into the next game. I think all of us had a little bit of competition built into us so it’s hard to walk away from it. But the other part is, I would say is just part of a larger ecosystem of the World of Chel. It’s great place to play when you’re there by yourself but when your friends are online, there’s other experiences that are in there too that are just as compelling.