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Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Gamer Blog: It's in the cards

By Jon Robinson

Madden Ultimate Team

In Ultimate Team mode, gamers assemble their lineup by trading or buying trading cards.

Do you feverishly rip open packs of football cards in search of that Percy Harvin rookie while playing as the Vikings in "Madden"? EA Sports has a new online offering that should help give that "Madden NFL 10" disc even more spins in January. Madden Ultimate Team is headed to the Xbox 360 and PS3, offering a new mode to the game in which football fans will combine the art of card collecting and stick skills to build the best virtual team possible.

And the most surprising fact of all? The new mode will be free. That's right, EA is releasing an online mode for "Madden" that seriously boosts the product, and it's free of charge. (What's next, Jerry Jones letting me into his new stadium so I could watch "Fringe" on his big screen?)

"We wanted to give back to the fans," says the game's producer, Josh Looman, when I act stunned about the (lack of) price. "The nice thing is, it's a full-featured new aspect of the game we can give people to further enhance the depth of 'Madden.' You can build your team, play games, sell cards on the auction block all for free."

I caught up with Looman to find out all the dirt about the new mode, the legendary cards and how the mode will work online.


Jon Robinson: EA Sports introduced FIFA Ultimate Team last year. What's your inspiration for card-based games like this?

Josh Looman: The thing for us that's exciting is this is a new way to play 'Madden.' It's a new mode, and that collector aspect has always been a big part of gaming. I think a lot of us, when we were younger, we collected football cards or baseball cards, and the neat thing about Madden Ultimate Team is it provides a way to capture that experience, and it allows you to use your cards in context of the 'Madden' game play that people are very familiar with. It gives you that ability to collect cards, put a team together in the game and then play with those guys and prove that you have the ultimate team.

Robinson: Can you describe how the new mode works?

Looman: When you start up, it's a whole new mode off the main menu in 'Madden,' and when you start the mode, you're given a starter pack with enough players, coach, playbook, stadium and uniform cards to play your first game. The cards you start with are lower-rated cards, so it's up to you to build your team from that point. After that, you play your first game, and depending on how well you did, you'll earn coins based off of your performance. You can then use those coins to buy more packs of cards or bid on cards on an auction block, which is an eBay-like feature where you can buy and sell cards with other people posting and buying from you. Or you can buy from the weekly deal, which will be our great deal where we offer you a rare card for a discounted price. So you could have a legendary Tom Brady or Randy Moss from the Vikings, and you can buy those cards to help build your Ultimate Team.

The goal is to go in, get as many cards as possible, build the type of team you want, then compare yourself against your buddies on the leaderboards.

Robinson: You mentioned playbook, stadium and uniform cards. How do those come into play?

Looman: The playbook cards serve as the playbooks you'll use in-game. So you could be using the Steelers' offensive playbook, the Ravens' defensive playbook, the Chiefs' stadium and the Dolphins' uniforms. You can also get legendary playbooks that give your team a boost. The 2007 Patriots' legendary playbook will make your passing game better, for example.

Robinson: Can you take your team through a season offline, or can you only play head-to-head games online against other users?

Looman: It's not through a season. Madden Ultimate Team is its own separate mode. So when you put your team together, you can play against the CPU teams to earn coins or you can play online head-to-head. So you'll play a game, earn some coins, buy another pack of cards, mess with your lineup a little bit, then go right back into another game.

When you're playing the CPU, you're playing against the real NFL teams like the Bengals, but when you play online head-to-head, you're playing against other people and their ultimate teams.

Robinson: What player ratings are used on the cards? With updated rosters, will some of my cards actually devalue due to a poor playoff performance?

Looman: The way it works is we have three tiers of cards. We have bronze, which is your lowest level, your third-string players in the NFL, your backups. Then you go to silver cards, and these guys are good enough to play on your team. They are probably rated in the 80s. Then we have gold-tier cards, and those are the best players in the league. These are guys like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady and Randy Moss. Then we have legendary cards, and these are players who are in the NFL now, but the cards are based off of how they played in their prime. So we have Warrick Dunn with the Buccaneers and Randy Moss with the Vikings and Mark Brunell with the Jaguars. So if you add one of these cards, they will play like they did back in their prime. We also have limited edition cards, that will be rare, special-edition cards. And the neat thing is, we have the ability to add cards at any time, so if someone has a huge playoff game in January, I will have the ability to add that card and rate that guy like he played in the playoffs. That will be a special new card that you can get.

Robinson: Is there an Ultimate Team championship? When I'm playing the CPU, what's the goal?

Looman: We have leaderboards, so you can always compare your progress in a lot of different categories to all of the people on your friends list. You can take a look and see out of all of your friends who has purchased the most packs of cards or who has the best overall record or who is the best online head-to-head or who has the most legendary cards. There is definitely a way for you to compare your team to your friends and see who is the ultimate team owner at that point.

The other cool thing you can try to do is putting together the best version of a specific team. So if you want all guys who went to Florida State on your team, it's really up to you to put together your team and then take that team online to battle it out and prove that you've got the ultimate team.

Robinson: Is there any type of Super Bowl against a CPU opponent?

Looman: No. That's something we've talked about for the future, like having live tournaments or having some semblance of a season mode, but for the first version we just wanted to give you the ability to put together your team and battle it out against other people.

Robinson: In 'FIFA,' you could also purchase additional card packs online if you didn't want to play through a bunch of games with your terrible initial team. Will gamers have that option as well?

Looman: We're still working on that right now. We do have the ability at this point to add coins on Xbox 360, so you could buy coins if you want to. So if you're playing games and you're not doing so well and you're only getting a couple of coins at a time, you can supplement your total of coins to buy packs. We're also talking about adding the ability to buy packs outright if you want to, instead of just waiting for coins.

Robinson: So who is your ultimate team?

Looman: Sadly, my relatives are from Michigan, and I'm a Lions fan. So if I'm putting together my ultimate team, it would probably be pretty pathetic. Now, I'm also a big Texas Longhorns fan, so I'd mix in some Longhorns just to make my team a little better. But my team would definitely include Calvin Johnson, a resurgent Cedric Benson, and maybe Vince Young so I could run around and get some yards on the ground.

It's funny, working on this aspect of 'Madden' has brought me back to junior high, where we had those big folders with the clear plastic sheets with our cards. We'd all go buy packs of cards and look for that Joe Montana rookie or Bo Jackson rookie and we'd compare our binders like those were our teams. It's been a blast from the past for me, and everyone who has played it so far when we play-tested it has been really excited and was having fun playing, so I'm ready to get the game out there and have people take a look at it. This is a great new addition to 'Madden.'

Jon Robinson is ESPN.com's video game analyst.