CFL video game getting closer to reality

The first thing you should know about the founders of Canuck Play is that David Winter and business partner Sherly Loucks are much more than just experienced game developers. First and foremost, they’re CFL fans (Saskatchewan ones if you want to be specific). More importantly, Winter and Loucks are proud Canadians and both take a ton of pride in Canada’s rich football history and tradition.

As you get to learn more about Canuck Play, it’s easy to believe that there’s no company better suited to create the CFL’s first successful video game. Winter, who spent 10 years in the Navy before getting into game development, has 20 years of experience building games, doing everything from coding and designing to being a product director. Winter has worked for a number of studios, ranging from HB Studios to EA. During the five years he spent at EA, Winter was the producer and designer for EA Sports Online and was responsible for a large percentage of the online features for games such as Madden, NHL and FIFA. While he’s also worked on non-sports titles such as The Sims and Mech Warrior Online, Winter feels most at home when working on sports games.

With Winter doing the heavy lifting on the development side, Canuck Play’s day to day operations are run by Loucks, a published author with an extensive background in business management. As for the rest of their team, Canuck Play uses local contractors. A new office space is currently under construction and the hope is that as production for Canadian Football ’17 ramps up, so too does the size of their office.

Creating a proper CFL game has been somewhat of a lifelong dream for Winter. “It’s something that I’ve personally been striving for since about 1992” he says. “Though PC titles have always been possible, as they’re considerably less expensive to develop, sports gamers want consoles titles, whereas PC gaming is more for hard core GM management sims. During my time at EA I was an extremely vocal proponent for doing a CFL game. While there’s considerably more involved in the process than just changing a few code variables to make Madden play Canadian football, I knew it could be done if people spent ten minutes to hear me out. So I was the guy standing up and shouting, and pounding on desks to get people’s attention. Unfortunately, there was never any political will at the executive or development levels to make it happen.”

Over the years, Winter reached out numerous times to league executives to gauge possible support for a video game, with a console title always being the goal.

Though other companies have attempted to make a CFL game before, Winter is well aware that nobody has done the league justice.

Fast forward to 2016 where a Canadian football console game is finally on the cusp of becoming reality, thanks in large part to a new developer program recently established by Microsoft. Intrigued by the possibility of landing an agreement that would allow Canuck Play to self publish and to use the Xbox One development tools, Winter and Loucks prepared a rough business plan featuring a mock up of players walking around a field. After numerous discussions, Microsoft approved their plan and that agreement has made all the difference, providing Canuck Play with hardware and tools that led to massively reduced development costs. Instead of staring down a seven figure budget, Canuck Play is now able to produce high quality console titles using budgets similar to those of high-end mobile games.

Fans have every reason to be excited, as the game promises to capture Canadian football in all its glory. Winter promises it will include everything that makes the Canada’s sport unique and traditional. Rouges, the possibility to return missed field goals for touchdowns, flags for punts going out of bounds between the 20 yard lines and the three minute warning are all featured.

The game is being built with a Unity 5.4 engine and is targeted to be released on Xbox One platform, with PC, Mac and mobile versions planned for later on.

Though unfinished, game development is already far along. Half of the necessary motion capture has been done, but player physics are still a work in progress. Currently all player models are the same, though Canuck Play is in discussions with the developers of defunct AAA American football title to license player models from them. Winter emphasizes that “we’re not at our visual goals yet but you can already play a full game of Canadian football, either as a single player against the CPU or a local multiplayer game. All the parts are there; kickoffs, running plays from scrimmage, scoring points and taking penalties. We even have on-field player celebrations after a big play.”

As for game play itself, Winter says it’ll feel closer to EA’s NCAA Football than Madden.

Right now, Canuck Play isn’t planning on featuring any kind of Careers, GM Mode or online play (so no trading, drafting, etc.), choosing instead to focus on the core game itself. “Those kinds of modes are only practical to add once you have a solid core game. Other companies that simply release new editions of their game each year can spend time adding new modes and features with slight tweaks, because they aren’t working on building AI pass coverage from the ground up like we are.” says Winter.

In a perfect world, all those elements would be included, along with each team’s stadium and distinctive fans. Winter strongly believes that Canadian football is all about the fans, and if he can, he wants them included in the game. Another thing Winter would like to see is the inclusion of university (CIS) teams.

And there’s the catch. Because, while discussions have taken place, at the moment, Canuck Play does not have a licensing agreement with the CFL itself. Furthermore, Canuck Play has yet to speak with the CFLPA, who would also need to be consulted.

For now, Winter says that anyone wanting to show their support for the game can do so on Facebook or Twitter.

With a target release date of June 2017, Canuck Play is eager to get the ball rolling as soon as possible. Though aware of the pressure he is bringing upon himself and his team, Winter is ready for the challenge. “Nobody puts more pressure on myself or Canuck Play than I do. As we build this game, I want to try and engage fans and find a way to include them in a game that they’ll love to play and that they’ll recognize as being true to Canadian football and its traditions.”

Santino Filoso is originally from Ottawa and has written about the Redblacks since 2013. He is the only CFL writer currently living in Brazil (as far as we know).