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THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF MADDEN

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;On Aug. 14, thousands of Orlando gamers shredded the shrink-wrap on their shiny new copies of Madden ;NFL 08, popped them into their Xbox 360s and PlayStation 3s and started smashing away on a new season of virtual football. Chances are, less than half of them realized that one of the world's most popular video games is actually designed in their very own backyard.

;;Or, more specifically, in the Maitland compound that since 1995 has housed Electronic Arts' Tiburon Studio, which also produces EA's successful NCAA Football, NASCAR and NFL Street series for consoles and PC.;;

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In a nation obsessed with all things football, the Madden series – named, of course, for the legendary football coach and announcer who lends his voice to the game – sailed past pop-culture phenomenon status several years ago. Game stores throw their doors open at midnight to sell it. ESPN devotes an entire half-hour show (Madden Nation) to melodramatic one-on-one video gridiron match-ups. And since the game first debuted 17 years ago, it's moved a staggering 51 million copies.

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;For the last decade, EA Tiburon has been a key anchor of the region's burgeoning digital media industry, an industry the area's leaders promote as a means to balance the the tourism sector. Tourism jobs pay poorly; digital media jobs pay well. Not only do those with better-paying jobs typically pay more in sales and property taxes, they also use fewer government services; most important, they codify the notion of Orlando as a creative entity (leading to Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer's "Creative Village" plan as part of downtown's redevelopment). EA Tiburon, Full Sail Real World Education, the University of Central Florida's Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy, a cluster of more than 100 simulation companies and other digital media companies combine to create 6,000 jobs, according to the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission. Needless to say, it's big business.

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;And because Madden is EA's biggest breadwinner, the impact this game has in shaping Central Florida's future can't be overstated. Its success, both past and future, is very much tied to the region's hopes of reinventing itself.

;;The game's importance and history aren't lost on Ryan Ferwerda, the 25-year-old Orlando native who serves as producer for Tiburon's Team Madden. Ferwerda, who's been with EA Tiburon for eight years, is one of those original Madden warriors who sacked pixelated quarterbacks when the game shipped on floppy disks. Today, he's reaping the perks of a job that combines two of his greatest loves. Last year, Ferwerda got to hang out for four days at the Super Bowl in Miami, and he routinely gets to jaw with current and former elite athletes like Eddie George and Chad Johnson, who drop in to ensure that their digital likenesses are up to snuff.

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;"It's funny," he says. "We're almost as much celebrities to them as they are to us."

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;Keeping the Madden experience fresh is a year-round task that requires major juggling, especially given the game's diverse target audiences. There's the hard-core crowd, the guys who want to drop their safeties immediately in the shade with a cover-2 drop zone (and are familiar with the lingo). Then there are the casual noobs who need more significant hand-holding and a more patient approach. Or, as Ferwerda likes to put it, "Can I explain this feature to my mom, and would she understand?"

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;An example from the 2008 edition: Holding down the "Y" button on your Xbox 360 controller prior to the snap turns your receivers into possession guys, a nuance that would otherwise be lost on the player who's looking to simply throw deep and hope for the best.

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;"One of the challenges we always see – and it's an exciting one – is to keep that core Madden experience without inventing the wheel every year," says Ferwerda. "We start with that."

;;They start a lot sooner than you probably imagine. The Tiburon Madden team basically has to produce an airtight A-list title every 11 months. That means concurrent development cycles. When Madden NFL 08 hit the midpoint of alpha – the point at which features are tested and fine-tuned, usually around mid-April – the team began planning for Madden NFL 09.

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;"It really is football 365, 24-7," says Ferwerda.

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;With each annual edition, Tiburon picks a specific area of the football experience to beef up and burnish. Last year's edition spit-shined the running game with a right analog stick/lead blocking feature that was especially satisfying to those who get a particular thrill out of pancaking pesky linebackers. This year, Tiburon created the "Know Your Weapons" feature. Just like each NFL team has a handful of über-talented players, so will their digital counterparts in Madden 08.

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;"It comes back to the same balance we always try to manage," Ferwerda explains. "How do you show less experienced players which NFL players are good without showing them a spreadsheet?"

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;The numbers on the Madden team fluctuate between 125 and 150 employees, depending on where they are in the development cycle. Fan feedback plays a big part in the process, including Ferwerda's button-mashing friends. Like most major game developers, Tiburon has community managers who poll fans and troll Internet forums.

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;And yes, fanboys, it hurts when you diss their game as nothing more than a roster update with glitzy graphical trappings.

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;Internet carping aside, the game has developed a large and faithful audience in Orlando and throughout the world. But in that rapturous moment when your virtual Zach Thomas crunches your buddy's virtual Tom Brady, don't forget that this game, upon which you just dropped $59.99, is very much at the heart of Orlando's digital media embrace.

; feedback@orlandoweekly.com

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