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For many casual gamers, EA Sports’ Madden NFL series is synonymous with American football sims. Modus Games wants to change that perception with the return of Maximum Football – an established brand it acquired, tore down, and completely rebuilt in the last couple of years. After years of working quietly in the shadows, the cat’s out of the bag.

Releasing for PC in spring 2023 and later this year for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbos Series X|S, Maximum Football is a free-to-play American football simulation developed in Unreal Engine 5. It aims to offer a premium football experience with endless customization and physics-based gameplay.

Taking on the juggernaut that is the combination of EA Sports and the NFL Madden legacy is as David vs. Goliath as it gets, so we chatted with David – Micah Brown, Maximum Football’s Development Director – on what exactly players can expect from this renewed competitor.

Brown and his team have looked at a variety of games from the long history of American football sims for inspiration, naming some of the best-received titles in the genre. “Tecmo Bowl, 2K4, 2K5, Madden 04 through Madden 08, and Backbreaker are all titles we on the team have loved playing,” Brown explains. “We hope to bring the excitement of these games into a new experience that players all over the world will enjoy."

“I remember back in the day when I played 2K5 – the controls were tight, and it really made me feel like I was in control of the game. That's how we are building Maximum Football. We don't have long animations that involve five to six players – all of our animations are quick, and we focus on transitioning in and out of them without interfering with user control. This, plus our focus on physics, ensures that we never have plays that feel scripted or predetermined.”

Screenshot from an American football sim.

Responsive controls are one of the advantages of Maximum Football compared to Madden, the devs say.

This focus on responsiveness is one of the big differences between Maximum Football and the modern incarnations of Madden. Instead of locking players into long animations, athletes will move as soon as something is happening on the joystick. According to Brown, “It feels immediate.”

Another key aspect Maximum Football focuses on is customization. “You can import (almost) any image you want as your logo, change any of your team colors, patterns and equipment, edit your rosters as much as you want and share all of it online,” Brown says.

You can see what that looks like on a Development Diary video the studio released a few months ago, obviously showing footage from a work-in-progress-build.

This customization not only extends to visuals, names, and stats, but also to players’ strategies. At launch, players will be able to create their own playbooks, adding and removing plays at will. Support for custom plays will be added in a future update.

While free-to-play games are present in most genres nowadays, sports games have been comparatively slow to pick up this model – soccer simulation eFootball being the most prominent example. Konami’s title did not directly influence the decision to go free-to-play with Maximum Football, though. Instead, the main aspect making the model interesting for their game, Brown says it allows the team “to build on the game over time, alongside the community”.

“Free-to-play gives us the freedom to respond to fan feedback throughout development and continue to add depth to game modes over time,” he explains. “We want to create a football platform where users can play with tons of different rule sets, field configurations, severe weather changes and more without having to relaunch the game every year. Users shouldn’t have to rebuild their franchises from scratch every year when they purchase a new sports title.”

American football players cheer after a win.

Maximum Football plans on selling cosmetic items to players.

Naturally, this begs the question of how Maximum Football will generate the revenue necessary for this continued development. Brown is not quite ready to reveal the entire monetization plans for the game, but explains that “our plan is to evolve the game over time and continue to expand our feature set and create something that players can feel confident investing in. In addition to the robust customization options that exist for players, we will be offering a selection of premium goods and licensed equipment that can be purchased to further expand the customization options. We will have more details on all of this at a later date.”

For sports games, another natural option aside from cosmetics are in-game ads, as real-life stadiums are full of them anyways. It’s an option that’s currently being explored for Maximum Football. They “can be a great way to provide a degree of authenticity to the game, [...] mirroring the atmosphere of real-world stadiums through their visual displays of ad banners and screens”, Brown says. “However, we will of course want to ensure that any promotional advertising in-game is not invasive or breaks the authenticity of the game,” he continues. “They should only appear in spaces where they add to the experience, not take away from it.”

Brown also promises that paid content would not split the player base, saying that “online play is open to everyone – that way the online community isn't fractured and you can always find a match.” This is going to be important for the long-term health of the game, since player retention is much easier with short queue times.

Screenshot from an American football sim.

The devs want to deliver an authentic experience above all else, which includes violent tackles.

Getting to the topic of licenses – an important one for sports fans worldwide – we ask what players can expect in this department. After all, EA Sports has a firm grip on official NFL material. “We have licenses with popular sports brands that we’ll reveal in the future for some of our customizable player equipment,” Brown reveals. “Rather than provide users with their favorite teams and players, we will give users the tools to create whatever team or player they want on their own. If you want to create a Hall of Fame team, you can do that. If you want to create a team full of scientists with Einstein as the QB, you can do that. If you want President Lincoln to be the starting Halfback, you can create him and add him to a roster.“

This has been a go-to technique for sports games without licenses in the past, and with Maximum Football’s sharing features it’s conceivable that the entire NFL’s line-up of teams and players will be available to download for the game just a week after launch.

Licenses don’t only come with advantages, though. Some time ago, EA Sports had to tone down the tackle animations and collisions on Madden, because the NFL did not like how violent they looked. “There are lots of cool things that a licensed sports game just can’t do because of licensing restrictions,” Brown agrees. “We don't have those constraints – we can make the hits as hard as they are in real life.”

A football player in the air.

The devs used motion capture recordings as a base for their animations.

For this, the team recorded “thousands of hours of authentic animations from professional football players“ and combined them with “a variety of systems to create ultra-realistic gameplay.” Brown explains that “during blocking engagements, we take the momentum from both players involved and use it to help determine which player gets leverage during the block.”

This leads to wonderful moments where athletes are flung through the air, as players feel the visceral impact of the tackle.

“You take a lifeless ragdoll body and stiffen different joints during contact to make it appear like the body is tightening up,” Brown explains. “So, for instance, if you only stiffen the right knee joint, and then tackle the character, you would see the right leg trying to stay rigid while the rest of the body goes limp. We use these ragdolls during big hits when one player gets trucked by the other. We turn on the ragdoll right when the player gets trucked and then turn it off after he hits the ground and bounces around for a moment.”

Animation-based physics help to keep those scenes fresh, making them look a little bit different every time. Another system featured in Maximum Football is de-penetration, which helps reduce the amount of limbs sticking through other players’ bodies by catching them and pushing them out before they’re being rendered on the screen.

The team used Unreal Engine 5 to achieve all of this. According to Brown, “lighting, physics, audio, animation tools and many other features built into Unreal 5 give us the ability to compete with AAA Football titles.”

Maximum Football will launch with online multiplayer (offering competitive and casual modes) as well as a Dynasty and Pro Season mode, which for the time being will only be playable alone. “We will start working on the multiplayer Dynasty and Franchise mode after launch,” Brown says. “Both modes will be in the same universe, so you will be able to send Dynasty players to your Franchise league and draft them onto your pro teams.”

Multiplayer will also only allow you to play against other players at launch, with team-based modes and co-op for two players coming later. “We want to get all the way to 11v11 big team modes where users can drop in and out of ongoing games,” Brown says.

Launch is the priority right now. When asking about accessibility features and controls, Brown says “we know players’ expectations are going to be shaped by other games, so our intent is to ensure we’re providing similar baseline features that players have come to expect.” Brown and his team have hopefully learned from eFootball’s catastrophic launch in this regard, which still dominates the perception around it to this day. First impressions are important, after all.

Some things will be missing at launch, but the studio is being transparent about it. There won’t be commentators giving a play-by-play initially, but it’ll come when it’s ready and polished in a future content update. Fans of previous Maximum Football titles also will have to live without the Canadian ruleset for the time being, as this will also be added later on: “We know this is a feature the fans really want to see, and we are absolutely committed to making it happen – we’re big fans as well,” Brown says.

Just like launching on additional platforms or adding an Ultimate Team mode, these are luxury items for the time being.

“My hope is that by next year we will have proven to football fans that Maximum Football is a real competitor in this space, and that we are here to stay for the long run. We’re excited about the experience we’re planning to deliver on Day 1 and we’re even more excited about where this game will be by the end of Year 1.”

Naturally, we couldn’t say goodbye to such a passionate football fan without asking for his Super Bowl prediction. “If Mahomes plays well, the Chiefs should win,” was Brown’s prognosis.