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Virtual lockout in the NHL video game industry


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Virtual lockout on ice

Puck set to drop on NHL video game

Developers wait on new rules, rosters





Sidney Crosby has dominated the junior hockey game like few before him. But where does he rank in the video world, skating against virtual Peter Forsbergs and Jarome Iginlas? Does he rate a 79 out of 100, or an 87? How durable should his pixelated teenage frame be when standing up to punishing hits from a digital Chris Pronger? And which jersey will he wear when he finally makes his NHL video game debut?


Fortunately, developer EA Sports won't have to figure out how Crosby stacks up against the veterans until after he plays his first National Hockey League game. Until then, the company can't include the young gun in its upcoming NHL 06 title, set to hit stores in September.


But Crosby's absence is one of only a few things the Vancouver based developer knows for sure about this year's hockey title.


A year without NHL hockey has left EA Sports ? and developers of other NHL video games ? devoid of stats from last season to use in compiling player ratings, not knowing what the actual rules of the game will be when it does return, and with some seriously messy rosters as a large percentage of the league's players are without contracts.


So you'll forgive David Littman if he's feeling almost as much anxiety as an NHL general manager these days, as he waits for word on the conclusion of negotiations and the announcement of the league's new collective bargaining agreement.


"We're just waiting now," said Littman, the lead producer for NHL 06. "Waiting on the word from the NHL that we can really get this going."


Littman isn't the only one with bated breath.


"It's certainly been a challenging year," David Perkinson, senior producer for Sony's video game, Gretzky NHL '06, said of trying to put together an updated game without a season to base it on.


At EA Sports' Vancouver offices, Littman and his team of programmers and designers have done just about all they can to tweak the on-ice game play of NHL 06 to include new features such as the Skill Stick and Deke Control.


"We've pretty much finished up the actual game," Littman said. "Our main thing right now is trying to get as updated as possible with all the changes are going on."


While the rosters will need to be updated and rule changes incorporated, one aspect Littman is not stressing over is changing the skill ratings for individual players.


"There's no reason to change them," he said in an interview. "I don't think Markus Naslund's deking ability went down because he didn't play in the NHL for a year."


But the game will include a player editor feature, Littman said, so that "if somebody wants to say, `I think Todd Bertuzzi has lost a step, I'm going to knock his speed down five points,' then they can do that."


Game developers at Sony and EA ? as well as at 2K sports (NHL 2K6) and Sports Interactive (Eastside Hockey Manager) ? are in constant contact with both the NHL and its players' union and are getting updates on the status of negotiations as well as news of which rule changes will be included in any new agreement.


Perkinson said that Sega has already dropped the size of goalie equipment in its game, and Littman said that EA is "working closely with (the NHL), and they've been giving us any information they have as quickly as they get it."


But even the NHL doesn't know for sure what its teams will look like next year.


Vincent Lecavalier is the NHL 06 cover athlete, though he's a restricted free agent and there's a chance he won't be sporting his Tampa Bay Lightning uniform when the game is released.


"There's going to be so much roster movement once this gets settled that we'll have to race to keep up to date," Littman said.


Even if Crosby is drafted No.1 as expected and signs with his team immediately, gamers won't be able to play as the latest Next One.


"(Crosby's) not in the game now," Littman said. "He'll have to play an NHL game before any company can put him into a video game."


However, those who will play the title on Xbox, Playstation 2 or PC will quickly be able to download updated rosters from the Internet that include Crosby, Littman said.


"As soon as he plays his first game, boom! We can put him into our game right away through downloads," Littman said.



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