Nine years isn’t a tremendously long amount of time, but in video games, particularly sports games, it’s essentially a lifetime. From its early beginnings as one of the founding fathers of the original PlayStation experience, the NFL GameDay series not only held its ground with EA’s Madden NFL series and a host of other competitors, it often dominated. Highlighted by the polygonal-powered NFL GameDay 98, which sold nearly two million copies, the series was the cornerstone of the Sony Sports lineup on the PlayStation One. Add in other titles like NHL FaceOff, NBA ShootOut, the Extreme series and Cool Boarders and first-party PlayStation sports titles were one of the reasons why the Nintendo 64, Sega Saturn and any other console just couldn’t stack up.
When the PlayStation 2 launched, however, Electronic Arts learned from their mistakes in 1995 when they couldn’t debut a competent hockey and football game on the PlayStation one (both NHL 96 and Madden NFL 96 were canceled on the PS1) and right out of the gate, where far superior when compared to their Sony counterparts. As the years passed, fans continued to support the first-party Sony sports titles on the system, which continued to sell in the six figures, but then when the Sega Dreamcast lineup of 2K sports titles hit the system- and were just as enjoyable as the EA games, Sony’s internally-developed sports titles were dead in the water.
While the last NFL GameDay title on the PS2, NFL GameDay 2004 and still sold an impressive 410,000 copies and featured a wealth of cool options like voice recognition through the USB headset and solid online modes, many critics felt it wasn’t in the same league as its competition. However, EA’s acquisition of the NFL license is what eventually killed the series and any other NFL-based video game after 2005. Although the tech that powered the GameDay series continued to live on for years (on the PSP of all places) after the franchise’s demise and a 2005 version of the game was released for the PlayStation (it was mainly the same game as the year before but with a roster update), NFL GameDay 2004 on the PS2 was the last original game in the series.
For GameDay 2004 programmer Jim Buck, whose previous work on 3Xtreme, Twisted Metal 3, Twisted Metal 4 and Rally Cross all earned him the respect of his peers, working on NFL GameDay 2004 was an education in football as well. “I wasn’t specifically a fan, still am not really, and I actually didn’t understand the rules of football at all before working on the game, but I totally learned most of how the game works and can appreciate watching a game now,” Buck said. “I especially prefer the kind of game-watching that involves a party, such as the Super Bowl.”
But despite not being a fan of the sport, being a part of the GameDay 2004 team was his way back into video games after a short exit. For that, it was something to be excited about. “I was in the industry for seven years by the time I came on board to GameDay 2004. I was living abroad in Poland for a year, early 2002 to early 2003, and I got a message from Bob Gordon, a lead programmer on GameDay, asking if I wanted to come and join the team,” Buck said. “I had left Sony in 2000 to do a startup called DepthQ, was in Poland on a sabbatical from doing the startup, while my business partner was doing the same but in South America. Both he and I knew many of the people at RedZone, including the people heading up that studio like Chris Whaley, so coming back to Sony was appealing given we weren’t doing anything with our startup due to hardships with getting contracts post-9/11 (all companies became super-reserved). My business partner, who had also left Sony when I did in order to do the startup (we were formerly on Twisted Metal 3 and Twisted Metal 4 together), was also being offered to come to RedZone. We said ‘screw it,’ referring to our startup and came back to Sony to work on GameDay 2004.”
Quickly however Buck realized this wasn’t the same series it was when he was originally at Sony just a few years prior. “When my former business partner and I came on board, we entered the office with all the founders of that studio just….gone,” Buck said. “There was something weird that had happened at Sony at the time, those people were let go, and we weren’t even sure if the job offers were still on the table. Thankfully, it turned out we were still good to work there.”
At the same time, Buck was still hyped to be a part of the NFL GameDay 2004 team. For him, it was a series that had a track record of success and a legacy he wanted to be associated with. “GameDay had the lineage of having some really hardcore football fans developing the game, headed up by two college buddies, and I think some of the marketing team were former football players in college,” Buck said. “It was the first game to do 3D polygonal players right after EA had said that it was impossible to do. As a result, the following year’s Madden unsurprisingly had to come out with polygonal characters, too. GameDay didn’t have the IP attachment like Madden did, but I think due to that, it didn’t have perhaps some limitations Madden may have had due to the licensing tie-in and necessity to please the licensee. That said, we were still bound to NFL and I think there were some limitations there (though I don’t know what).”
The opportunity to work on the PlayStation 2 was something Buck wasn’t about to pass up either. Considering how successful he was as an engineer on a slew of successful PS1 games, Buck was ready to see how well his skills translated to a new console. “After living a year abroad and not working on anything in particular for that time, yeah, I was jazzed to come back to San Diego, come back to Sony and work on a new platform (PlayStation 2),” Buck said. “Since I had the physics background from the PlayStation One games I worked on, it was expected I would at least take on some physics work, but I ended up working on all sorts of other random things as well.”
A lot of those random things Buck worked on had a big impact on the title. With his experience on several games that thrived on physics and contact, he absolutely found a way to make a mark on the game. “I brought a lot of refinements to how collision was done (specifically how the players were colliding into each other and resolving those collisions), some new physics objects (coin and referee flag; I don’t see it on my list, but I think cones, too), camera features and smoothing, kicking/kick meter accuracy and many other misc. things,” Buck said.
Those refinements were his contributions, but Buck believes the team did a lot of solid things and he enjoyed his time with them. “The team was cool to work with,” Buck said. “Lots of different characters, mostly out of school and this being their first job/franchise to work on. I’m still connected to a majority of these guys on Facebook. Some of the team are people I worked with on prior PlayStation projects that had since moved to sports.”
It was with this team where Buck had the opportunity to get extra geeky, creating a moment that had little to do with football but is something he still remembers nearly 20 years after the game’s release. “This is probably a boring story since it’s probably only interesting for a programmer, but someone on the team checked in code that suddenly made it take a long time to compile the game,” Buck said. “One source file, in particular, was the culprit. It turned out he was doing something crazy, using the preprocessor directives in C++, something that would probably be fine these days, but not good at the time given our Windows machines’ hardware. His response was, ‘I thought the preprocessor would be more intelligent than that,’ with how it was handling his code. The rest of us didn’t let him live that statement down since the whole point of a PREprocessor is that it doesn’t have intelligence at all… it’s just pure text replacement without any kind of analysis whatsoever. Like I said, only funny for a programmer.”
Selling over 400,000 units on the PlayStation 2- over 10,000 more than the year before, GameDay 2004 was far from a failure on the console. However, with sales of ESPN NFL Football and Madden 2004 at 560,000 and 5.23 million units each respectfully, the writing was on the wall. The GameDay series’ time in the sun was over. Once EA Sports acquired the exclusive rights to the NFL license as well, in December of 2004, barring other developers from developing NFL-based games, Sony had no choice, but to kill the GameDay series. Luckily for Buck, his work lived on in other ways. Ways most might not expect.
“There was some early work done on the code for GameDay 2005 before it was official that EA was locking up the license,” Buck said. “I was meant to be PSP lead on a GameDay-for-PSP before I ended up moving over to a different San Diego Sony building to work on PSP graphics tech used in all the PSP NBA games. Once EA locked up the license, development on GameDay 2005 morphed into an RPG kind of unlicensed football game for PSP. I worked along with those guys since they were using my PSP graphics tech for the football game. Unfortunately for the game, the RedZone studio was eventually closed, announced to the team in July 2005 and everyone was either given a chance to find another team to move to internally or let go. I think only a few ended up staying.”
While Buck is proud to see some of his work on NFL GameDay 2004 continue on in other forms, he would have preferred the series endured and lived to fight another day. One of the first franchises by Sony to prove itself against major competition, the death of the NFL GameDay series was absolutely the end of an era at Sony.
“It was the major contender against Madden before EA managed to kill it, not based on product or tech but, based on grabbing exclusivity of the NFL license,” Buck said. “It really sucks that it was the last of the series and even though I moved onto other stuff, I would have liked to have seen it continue on. It was Sony’s major sports franchise during those years and it paid some decent bills for Sony’s PlayStation development. But, of course, there is a natural satisfaction on having had worked on the final installment of a major franchise.”