Interview: Canadian football video game almost ready for launch

Though the last twelve months haven’t gone exactly as David Winter hoped, he still can’t help but feel optimistic about the future of his soon to be released video game, Canadian Football 2017.

Since we last spoke in 2016, Winter’s company (Canuck Play) has been hard at work developing a three down football game for the XBox One and PS4 that he hopes Canadians across the country will get behind, even if it won’t be an official CFL title. I recently caught up with him to discuss everything from the game’s mechanics, to release date, to how he overcame the disappointment of being shunned by the league.

When we last talked your office space was still under construction, as a company how far has Canuck Play come in a year?

Canuck Play’s office space is part of The Cube, an innovation cluster in downtown Peterborough. It’s space that is made available to firms like ours that the business community has decided to invest in. It’s become an extremely productive area as even business that are not directly related can help each other out.

Last year you told me the game would feel closer to EA’s NCAA Football than Madden, is that still the case?

The game is evolving and has its own unique feel. It’s a much faster game than what players may be used to. Much of that comes from the rules; the amount of time you have to pick a play and snap the ball is much shorter so you have to be quicker about that. The players on the field move faster and if you don’t get rid of the ball in about two seconds your QB will come under pressure.

One big thing players will need to get used to is what Canadian football fans know as “the Waggle”, which is when your receivers go into motion. Snapping the ball is timing based, meaning you press the B button to send the players in motion and then the A button to snap the ball. If you don’t snap the ball in time, your receivers will go offside, leading to a flag.

Tell me a bit more about the gameplay itself.

Passing is touched based. Like other football games, each receiver is assigned a button and the longer you hold the button down, the harder the throw to that receiver will be. When you play the game, you’ll have the option to tap a button to lob a pass and put more air under it (for a fly route), or press and hold the button for a bullet pass (for a slant over the middle).

On-field players have basic juke moves like side steps and spins and it’s worth mentioning that players become fatigued the more you use them. There’s actually a fatigue meter under the ball carrier that indicates how tired that player is. You can run the ball with the same player several times in a row, but you’re going to wear him out and he’ll start to slow down and eventually become more likely to fumble the ball. Our fatigue meter adds an extra layer of strategy to the game as you’ll really need to spread the ball around.

Kicking is fairly traditional, aim with the right thumb-stick, then pull back and push forward with the left one to put the ball in motion. Given the short play clock, you get very little time to aim and kick. As for punting, we have included the uniquely Canadian quirk that allows a kick returner to punt the ball back out of the end zone to avoid giving up a rouge. There’s also the possibility to recover your punts with an onside kick, another feature that you won’t find in other football titles.

I also want to emphasize that Canuck Play has aimed to create a game that anyone can pick up and enjoy. Some titles (like Madden) are simply too intimidating to a lot of people. That’s why we’ve put a lot of effort into simplifying things and making our game extremely accessible by allowing players do do things such as adjusting the play clock (to give you more time to pick plays), to turn off the waggle (so that the ball is always automatically snapped at the right time) and so on.

What kind of game modes will you feature?

When making Canadian Football 2017 we really tried to stick to the KISS principle (Keep it simple, stupid). That’s why we’ll only be offering a quick play mode; you just pick two teams and play. It’s basic but if we had added other features like career mode, etc., we’d have needed much more development time. In the end we decided to spend our time on the core experience rather than trying to add a bunch of modes or trading card features. Perhaps in future versions we can add those options in.

How many teams will players be able to choose from?

We have nine teams representing the nine existing pro football cities in Canada.

Can you reveal their names?

It’s quite possible the names change between now and when we launch but as things currently stand we have: the BC Timber Wolves, the Edmonton Rhinos, the Calgary Cowboys, the Regina Knights, the Winnipeg Corsairs, the Toronto Wild Hogs, the Ottawa Lumber Jacks, the Hamilton Stingers and the Montreal Ducks.

Will it be possible to customize teams/players/jerseys/logos, etc.?

Not on the console versions of the game. The platform requirements for managing user generated content pushed that out of scope this year. However on the PC version these are all open source files (PNGs and XML files) so they can be easily changed.

Will the in game stadiums be modelled after real CFL stadiums?

Our stadiums are certainly inspired by real world places but we’ve made a changes to insure they’re not exact duplicates. Obviously all real world branding has been removed. There are no team logos or real world company names visible anywhere. The stadium names are fictional and some of the architectural details themselves are different.

The game will feature all aspects of Canadian rules, from the rouge, to no fair catches, to the CFL’s overtime format, correct?

The game features as many of the Canadian rules as was practical. You have 3 downs, a 20 second play clock , a 110 yard field, 20 yard end zones, 12 players per side, full motion before the snap, No Yards penalties and so on. Anything people expect, from scoring rules to major penalties, are all there.

In terms of development, what will your team focus on these final few months?

Everything from tweaking bugs, to polishing animations and dealing with whatever kind of last minute glitches op up.

Is the project still on target for a June 2017 release?

Unless something falls through the floor, I see no reason why we won’t hit our June 2017 release date.

When will you submit for certification?

For those that may not know, console titles need to go through a certification process before they can be run on a console. Both Microsoft and Sony have strict minimum requirements for games that run on their respective platforms, and the majority of the certification process is ensuring we’ve met those requirements. Our title has a pre-submission date at the beginning of April. This is just a very quick first pass of the game by Microsoft to give us some feedback and let us know about any issues they’re finding. Our formal submission happens during the first week of May. Sometimes it takes two or three submissions before approval is granted. If that turns out to be the case for us, I won’t be worried, as it happens to most games and is simply part of the process.

Will your game be available worldwide, or just in North America?

Right now Canuck Play is focused on a North American release. This has more to do with game ratings than anything else, as every territory requires its own rating. In North America we use the ESRB. In the UK, and other parts of Europe, the rating system is known as PEGI. Their submission process is quite a bit more complicated than the ESRB process and given our expected overseas sales it was decided to get North American going first. In fact, Canadian Football 2017 received its ‘E for Everyone’ ESRB rating a few weeks ago.

I’ve read online that the game will first come out on Xbox and later PS4, why not launch both at the same time?

We’re launching on Xbox One first for two major reasons; One, Microsoft has supported this project from day one and we’ve built the game to their specific certification requirements from the start. Secondly, we didn’t get our publishing agreement in place with Sony until October of 2016 and that really wasn’t going to give us enough time to build towards two platform requirements with our current resources.

On a related note, do you have a rough idea of the cost?

Given that we’re releasing a fairly basic game, our expectation is that players will be looking at $20 Canadian or $15 American to purchase our game. From that, Canuck Play still pays a platform royalty to Microsoft.

Will Canadian Football 2017 be available for PC/Mac and/or will there be a mobile version of the game?

Although we’re focused on the Xbox One platform, we’re very interested in the PC desktop as well. The desktop edition would allow for customization of the game’s data files which I know would be very popular. A PC version would be a direct port of the console game, meaning there would be no keyboard or mouse support. Players would need a compatible game controller (like a wired 360) and a PC with at least a GeForce 720 graphics card.

What has been the biggest difference between the support you’ve received from Microsoft vs Sony?

It’s been night and day. Microsoft has been behind us since December of 2015, back when we submitted our prototype, business plan, and goals to bring Canadian culture and content to their platform. They were very keen to help and have supported the project by providing us with the same publishing agreement that other large studios have. They’ve also supplied us (at no cost) with console development kits and software licenses, investments worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Our experience with Sony was quite different. We approached them at the same time as we did Microsoft but it took over 11 months for us to come to a consensus on a publishing agreement. Furthermore, unlike Microsoft, Sony has provided no additional support. The development kits and licenses came at our own cost.

Unfortunately the CFL did not back your project. What exactly happened?

Not getting a license has had an extremely negative impact on our goals and the game in general. This has been a project I’ve been trying to get off the ground for a very long time. Over the years I’ve had multiple conversations with various staff members, everyone from licensing directors to the commissioner of the time. I’ve always been told basically the same thing; they’d be willing to talk if I solved the console problem. And thanks to Microsoft’s backing, Canuck Play did solve that problem, which is why I contacted the league again at the end of 2015. It took until February 2016 to hear anything back and after they initially flat out refused, we were eventually invited to a face to face meeting in April.

Our agenda for that April meeting was two-fold. We wanted to show the league what we had (up to that point) and to discuss our proposal, our partners, and what we could bring to the table. At the time we were only about three months into development and thus didn’t have much gameplay to show off.

Our business proposal included funding from two sources – several hundred thousand dollars combined private funding from the Community Futures Development Corporation Peterborough, the Peterborough Angels and our own money. With the help of the Peterborough Innovation Cluster, that private funding was then to be matched with various grants and tax rebates, which gave us a proposed budget of about seven figures. Additionally, as I’ve already mentioned, Microsoft covered all of the major hardware and software costs and The Cube our office costs, which further reduced our expenses.

We had funding lined up, support from the business community in Peterborough and a major console publisher in our corner (Microsoft). While some of the attendees at our meeting seemed quite interested in our work, ultimately we were told that the league already had a vendor in place. They told us that they would bring the topic up with the Commissioner and get back to us in two weeks, and in the meanwhile they wanted us to cut back on promoting ourselves on social media. As of today, Canuck Play has yet to hear back from them and in an October 2016 press release (seven months after our meeting), the league admitted that they actually don’t have a vendor.

What was the immediate fall out of failing to secure support from the CFL?

Without the league on our side, a predictable chain of events took place. First, we lost most of our private funding. Without the private funding we lost our access to required grants. That in turn lead to a hiring freeze that meant a smaller development team instead of the half dozen of hires we hoped to make. Without a pro license we were unable to attract any national advertisers. We had hoped to see advertising space inside the game to offset marketing costs but that never happened. We reached out repeatedly to TSN but they also never returned our calls or emails and we dealt with similar issues during our multiple attempts to get in touch with the CFLPA.

Ultimately, why do you think the CFL didn’t embrace your product?

I was left with the impression that they want someone who is willing to foot the bill for development, cover all of the marketing costs, pay them a royalty and sign over full control of the project. They also seemed focused on only working with a brand name studio. Obviously Canuck Play doesn’t (yet) have the name recognition of that other large studios and I think that worked against us.

Once Canadian Football 17 hits the market, what’s next for Canuck Play? Do you plan on making Canadian Football an annual release, like Madden, or is it more of a one off?

We currently have another, non-sports, title in the works but it’s a much longer term project. As for the football game, we’d love to make it an annual release. I’m quite pleased with what we’ve put together so far and I know fans will enjoy the final product. That being said, there are things I’d like to improve in future releases of the game (such as visual aspects, animations, etc.) but those improvements require funding. If this first release sells well, we can use that money to fund a second version and so on.

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).