Ahead of NHL 24’s big reveal, I was invited to EA Vancouver for NHL 24 Community Day. The event offered an early hands-on preview of the game, a chance to speak with developers, see NHL players being motion captured, and a “behind the scenes” look at how one of Canada’s biggest gaming franchises comes together each year. From the talent to the technology that is used to bring us EA NHL hockey each year, I was left very impressed.
As a long-time fan of the NHL series, I was excited to explore the history and evolution of a sports franchise that has been a mainstay on my gaming consoles for decades. Let’s dive into what the event had to offer, my gameplay impressions, and a few other surprises.
NHL 24 is developed right here in Canada
EA Vancouver, located in Burnaby, British Columbia is the home of the EA Sports NHL franchise. The massive campus is the biggest Electronic Arts has in its portfolio of studios. It acts as the creative centre for franchises like EA SPORTS FC, NHL, UFC, Plants Vs. Zombies, and Need for Speed. The complex features a state-of-the-art motion capture space, playtest lab, gyms, arcades, dozens of video/audio editing bays, and even its own soccer field.
First look at NHL 24
After checking into the event, we were taken to a theatre to preview what was in store for NHL 24. In the massive auditorium Chris Haluke, senior producer and Mike Inglehart, senior creative director at EA Vancouver offered a deep dive into all the features of NHL 24.
The biggest additions to the game this season are the Exhaust Engine, Total Control Skills moves, checking mechanics, and Human Goalie Controls. Big hits and high intensity play are cornerstones in pro hockey. In NHL 24 they look to serve up plenty of “edge of your seat” action.
“One thing we want players to notice is gameplay, that’s where we put an incredible amount of focus. So that is something we hope and know people will certainly feel and acknowledge,” shared Haluke.
NHL 24 looks to create more intensity with the Exhaust Engine
The Exhaust Engine will play a critical role in rewarding prolonged offensive time in the attacking zone. A new meter has been added that indicates pressure you are applying when you are in your opponent’s zone. Haluke thinks it’s going to add new layers of strategy to the game, “Now with the sustained pressure system, you need think about, ‘do I need to get that whistle (stop in play) to help my team recover?’ It also forces players to the outside a little bit, so you need to make those choice passes.” When you max that meter, momentum swings your way and your chances of scoring increase. This new system gives NHL 24 a more authentic feel that is true to real hockey.
More highlight reel moments in NHL 24
This year the development team has also completely revamped the control setup, adding “Total Control Skill Moves.” This makes it more intuitive for you to pull off “highlight reel” goals.
“So even for the new controller mapping if you want to do the lacrosse goal from behind the net, while you can execute the move more readily, you’re still going to have to master the positioning, when to execute it, what frame you need to be in order to have a chance to put the puck in the net, so we are going to give players a chance to enjoy more things,” adds Inglehart.
Setting up great plays will also come more natural with the introduction of the Vision Passing System. The new mechanic assigns controller face buttons to teammates. This allows for more direct passing, giving players the freedom to pass anywhere on the ice at any given time. There will be fewer controller miscues that accidentally breakup big plays.
A new level of physicality
The checking mechanics have been thoroughly updated with a physics-based contact system and new animations. This looks to completely transform physical contact in the game and crank up the intensity. Haluke adds, “If you think about the sustained pressure system that is kind of the linchpin under all of the gameplay advancements, hitting plays a critical role in that gameplay meta.” The new changes in body checks aim to make everything more realistic than ever before.
More intuitive goaltending with NHL 24
The Human Goalie Controls have been reimagined to give the goalie position a more genuine feel. The addition of the new Goalie Fatigue System impacts the goalie’s responsiveness to shots. The new Tethered Control System enables more precise movements within the crease. These changes make playing as a goalie more desirable for newcomers and veteran players.
I asked Mike Inglehart, senior creative director, about the goalie control changes and he had this to share, “There’s been a real concerted effort this year to make things a bit more accessible in net, a bit more intuitive, which should invite more types of players into the experience.”
NHL 24 hands-on impressions
After hearing about all the big changes in NHL 24 it was time to checkout the game. Right from the start I noticed how clean and sleek the menus and overall user interface looked. The presentation has a new “dark mode” style to the menus. It’s a lot easier on the eyes in lowlighting settings and looks more modern. Overall, the menus felt snappier, and I was able to dive into the action right away.
New crowd reactions and colour commentary
Even before the puck dropped, there were a lot of changes to the pre-game anthems and crowd reactions. Things felt more alive, and this year colour commentary has also seen a change. Canadian Olympic gold medallist Cheryl Pounder will join the broadcast booth for the first time and James Cybulski returns. The tandem sounds great together and very in tune with the action on the ice.
NHL 24’s new Goalie Controls
In my first game, I decided to try out the new Human Goalie Controls and see how the changes felt. I’m happy to share they offer a natural extension of the on-ice action. The “Tethered Control System” automatically centres you, pulling you back to the middle of the crossbar. Additionally, the “Goalie Instinct System” lets you anticipate players’ shots and predict the puck’s trajectory. If you guess right, you’re rewarded with a boost to your save attempt. Guess wrong and it reduces your chances of making the save. You can find more on NHL 24’s features here.
An Olympic showdown
While I was previewing NHL 24, Canadian women’s team Olympic gold medalist Emily Clark stopped by to check out the game. I was able to play a game with her, while checking out more of the game’s features. I played as Team Finland, and Clark, naturally picked Team Canada. One of the most surreal moments of the experience is when Clark took a faceoff in the game as her virtual self. Her time with the NHL franchise rekindles fond family memories along with teambuilding during big international tournaments. “We actually travel with a system with chel, some of us get that going.” She recounts playing EA Sports NHL during her downtime with teammate Emerance Maschmeyer, both big fans of the series.
A live look at a motion capture session
After our hands-on time with the game, we got a live look at EA Vancouver’s motion capture facility in action. During my visit Matt Moreau, the motion capture stage manager, explained how the process works. The space uses hundreds of tiny cameras that pick-up sensors on the athletes to capture and accurately triangulate their movements for use in the game. All this critical data is then shared with the animation team who does further work to “clean up” the character movement-in game.
The space also can transform depending on which game they are doing mo-cap for. If it’s FIFA, NFL, or other grass-based sports, they pull out massive rolls of artificial turf. For NHL sessions they use synthetic ice panels—large plastic pieces are assembled to form a massive surface so the athletes can perform more naturally.
While we were in the space, we got to see NHL players Rasmus Dahlin of the Buffalo Sabres and Adam Fantilli of the Columbus Blue Jackets record their goal celebrations. Each player put some unique takes on their goal cellies, and it was incredible to see the space in action.
The teams and talent working on NHL 24
Once the motion capture process is complete the data is shared with the animation department. I was able to see the next step in development meeting with Rohd Santos, the senior animator. Santos has been working on the NHL series since 2017 and is very passionate about the series. “I always wanted to work on NHL, ever since I started playing on the SEGA Genesis,” Santos told me. This year he worked on refreshing the body checking system, with both big and more nuanced changes. Using mo-cap footage data, he adds and removes aspects of the animation to make it look natural.
The technical side of the new Exhaust System
The biggest mechanic driving the new NHL 24 experience is the Exhaust System. It has an astronomical number of physics-based calculations happening in the background to make it work. You won’t see these numbers in the final product, but a ton of work has been done on the system. Matt McTavish, principal game designer demoed some of these physics’ calculations happening in real-time.
There are even percentage re-calculations happening when time pressure is applied in the offensive zone. You’ll start to see these manifested in a goalie slouching or taking longer to recover. A tip from McTavish: make sure you are taking lots of shots, or making a lot of passes. This will help tire out the defense and goalie adding a greater chance to score.
NHL 24 adds a deeper level of authenticity
David Pritchett, (above) senior game designer walked me through changes like new presentation packages, dynamic data that presents in-game during play and new additions to audio this season. There is a lot that has changed from updated on-ice projections to boards that display real-time data. Pritchett and his team look at NHL franchises like the Seattle Kraken and bring in new pre-game projections and crowd behaviours to add as much authenticity as possible.
It’s in the game
Next, I spoke with Andy Agostini, associate producer, and Gurndeep Sumal about their roles. Agostini and Sumal go to painstaking lengths to track player equipment, skating styles, haircuts, eye colour, facial hair, and beyond. They constantly update line changes throughout the NHL and other levels of pro hockey teams from around the globe to deliver as much accuracy as possible. As Sumal explains, “We take all that information and then formulate all the lines and manually input them, so the game knows this would be the best combination to do…from defensive pairings, even strength, power play, OT lines, then we have special lines for NHL Threes.” It’s a level of commitment that as a gamer and hockey fan, I really appreciate.
Scanning players and arenas for NHL 24
The final stop on our tour had us visit a large video editing bay to get a look at how player and arena models are built. Carl Jarrett, principal art director, and Erin Gillgannon, art director walked us through the extensive process. Current NHL players are scanned into the game where many elements like hair and facial features are manually added which takes a lot of time. Legacy players that might have no data readily available have the team go into overdrive collecting pictures and other assets to accurately re-create them in the game.
The house that hockey built
When it comes to building arenas around the world as accurately as possible Jarrett and Gillgannon depend on many different sources. From using actual architectural drawings, CAD (Computer Aided Design) files from architects or going on-site to 3-D laser-scanning on-site they compile and digitally construct a dizzying amount of assets.
That’s a wrap on NHL 24 Community Day
NHL 24 Community Day was an unforgettable experience that gave me a glimpse into how one of Canada’s most beloved video game franchises is made. The event was not only about experiencing NHL 24, but also about celebrating the community. Getting to meet and chat with some of the developers behind the game, who shared their passion and insights has me confident for the future of the franchise.
NHL 24 itself is quite impressive, offering a lot of new features and improvements that make it more fun and realistic than ever. I can’t wait to play more of the game when it launches on October 6th, 2023 for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PlayStation 5 and PlayStation 4. If you are a hockey fan or a gamer, you don’t want to miss out on this year’s installment.
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