Madden NFL 18: Longshot writer and EA Sports creative director Michael Young [right] with three-time NFL MVP Tom Brady.
Lifelong friends and teammates Michael Young and Adrian Todd Zuniga create a story-driven game for EA Sports, earning a Writers Guild Award nomination for Madden NFL 18: Longshot.

Written by Vincent Page & Daniel Stayton


About 35 years ago, Michael Young and Adrian Todd Zuniga met on a Little League baseball bench. Young was the star pitcher; Zuniga, by his own admission, a benchwarmer. Disparities in baseball skills led to a lifelong friendship, thanks in part to a shared love of videogames. Teammates then and now, their script for Madden NFL 18: Longshot is a 2018 Writers Guild Award nominee for Outstanding Achievement in Videogame Writing.

EA Sports creative director Young took chances with the popular Madden football series: instead of a Super Bowl shootout climax, Longshot is a character-driven, emotional story of individuals finding the courage to “show up” and face personal fears. Hiring his best friend Zuniga as co-writer became another gamble. Would it undermine their friendship?

This interview was conducted with Young at the Writers Guild, and simultaneously by Skype call with Zuniga from Australia. In the February/March 2018 issue of Written By magazine, both writers discuss their relationship. Here in the magazine’s Web Extra, Young and Zuniga offer more insights into their teamwork. Appropriately, they’re interviewed by 19-year-old best friends Vincent Page and Daniel Stayton, both college journalism students with countless hours of “research” playing Madden.

Daniel Stayton: This game seems to be blending multiple genres and mechanics. Games by Telltale [The Walking Dead, Wolf Among Us] and Quantic Dream [Fahrenheit, Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls] have been doing interactive fiction, branching paths, and QTE's [Quick Time Events] for quite a long time, although none of them are totally seamless or have their roots in a genre as established as Madden. And this is the first game in the series to be developed on the Frostbite engine, built specifically for shooters. What were some of the challenges associated with using Frostbite for both a sports game and a narrative-driven game?

“I was told by an executive at one point three, four years ago when I pitched Longshot—he was confused, and he’s like, ‘You can’t write this. You can’t direct it.’ And I was like, ‘Well, that’s the whole point of me pitching it. Like this is what I want to make. This specific story.’” – Michael Young

Michael Young: The truth is Longshot would not have been possible without Frostbite. The sports engine was optimized to create 11-on-11 simulation football at 60 frames per second. So, things like stadiums, grass, helmets all look and perform great. With Longshot we wanted a story that went beyond the field and the locker room drama. We wanted to tell a story about two small-town boys and their journey to the NFL. Frostbite allowed us to create over 40 environments and 45+ diverse characters needed to tell this story. Previously in Madden, we had never had something as simple as a house, a female speaking character, or even a child.

Vincent Page: And the shooter engine?

Michael Young: One of the reasons we were so easily able to take a shooter engine into Madden is that several sports teams paved the way. PGA and FIFA had built features we would eventually benefit from. Plus, the Frostbite team itself supported all our specific needs.

Daniel Stayton: Both of us are pretty big football fans, but some people who play Madden aren’t exactly football smart. But they do like Madden. So, is that what you guys wanted to go for, almost like a learning experience of the game of football?

Michael Young works with former NFL receiver Chad (“Ochocinco”) Johnson before a shot.

Michael Young: Well, I’ve been in Madden forever as the creative director and one of the biggest challenges with the game is that it’s very complex as a sport to understand. And people who have fantasy football teams and watch their favorite team every week, they don’t play the game through the lens of really understanding the strategy. They have the surface level understanding of it. And then, some people grow up playing Madden and they just kind of like, hit the auto select for the defense and just get by. And so, a goal is to kind of grow the audience by helping to bring people in with a story, because the story is universal, and then give them an authentic experience.

Vincent Page: Talk about the Devin storyline as an example.

Michael Young: The Devin storyline was very meticulously chosen to be someone who had to graduate from the college spread offense to the NFL. We could genuinely deliver a behind-the-scenes of what it would take to become an NFL quarterback. The challenge we really had—and it’s the only rewrites we did and reshoots we did—is what level do you place Devin at? In our first script, we were thinking we might get people who have never played football before or watch football. They might come for the story. And so, we had to have Devin at a level of almost like Pop Warner to high school. That was our first version of the script. We’re talking almost down to people who have a passion for football and understand it, or played it, or might have played a year in college. We did Hollywood play tests, a lot of testing, like films, and the story resonated. People were saying it’s very relatable, emotional. They care about Devin. They love Colt.

Vincent Page: What about gamers who know football?

“Future Pros” Michael Young and Adrian Todd Zuniga met on a Little League baseball bench.

Michael Young: The biggest polarizing thing was people who already loved Madden, who were open to a story. They thought Devin seemed dumb, not authentic enough for somebody who would have played Division I college. Then we found that the people who just wanted the story could care less about the football parts and completely zoned out on them anyway. So, we went back and made them more authentic. The jargon became very realistic. And we tried to fail people forward so the story didn’t stop, and we tried to, if they were failing, sort of coach them forward. Like, “No, Devin, that’s not why it’s wrong. It’s because of this.” We weren’t punishing you necessarily because you didn’t come in at a Peyton Manning level, master of football. We ended up doing a decent job there because you can’t please everyone. The audience of Madden, I imagine, is casual fans and there are competitive people who, “It’s a chess game. End it,” with real stick skills. It’s a tough game. And so, it was a hard balance.

That was probably the hardest challenge, but because we’re Madden, I had this amazing opportunity. The year before I had Todd on, I got to hang out with Bill Cowher, talk to Dan Marino, hang out with Pete Carroll and talk about how they would teach the sport. They would watch my video and read the parts of the story that we were talking about. They would give me authentic moments, and then we would kind of steal them and put them in our bag of, “Well, you know what story could actually really make this feel authentic?” There was a Jon Gruden story I was given about—you guys know what the Combine is?

Daniel Stayton: Yes, the scouting camp in Indianapolis, for drafting college players.

Michael Young: So, they’re doing interviews. They bring a player in. Jon Gruden was interviewing this quarterback back when he was the Raiders’ coach the first time, and Jerry Rice, Randy Moss were on the team. He doesn’t turn his back to him. The kid comes in. Gruden kicks a chair at him and tells him to call a play. And the kid is totally thrown, and he just kind of turns away and walks out. Gruden says, “Do you think I could send that guy into the huddle with Jerry Rice and Randy Moss? He’d get eaten alive.” So, it was just a personality test that the kid failed. We have hundreds of [anecdotes] from our research. That one ended up influencing one of the key Devin scenes with the fake coach, Jack Ford.

Daniel Stayton: So, what were some of your influences going into this? Was it other video games? Like I know NBA 2K kind of has a My Career.

Michael Young: Definitely not that much. I guess what’s great about consuming any media is you start to understand your own tastes and likes and dislikes. We had played that [NBA 2K] and I thought it was a weird hybrid of giving you a personal story with people, and then letting you create [a story] yourself. So we definitely wanted to do one or the other. You can’t give me a brother that I don’t have, or have a dad die that I don’t have, if it’s my face and my name. I don’t believe that can work. But if you could do a different story that’s really more about feeding back to how you perform in the world and your actions in the world, it’s a completely different way of writing and a completely different thing. When Todd got on, he wasn’t a huge gamer because he traveled so much. He was back in the day, but I said, “We’ve got to play these Telltale Games. Specifically, one season of Walking Dead moved me so much and the end, because I had to make this choice that had built up for two years, this relationship with this one character, I was gutted for weeks thinking about it. And I wouldn’t allow myself to go back because this was my choice in the moment. And so, what I liked about them is they put story first, not the graphics, not the lighting, not the cinematography—the whole time through, it was just story is king, story is king, story is king, story is king!

Adrian Todd Zuniga

Adrian Todd Zuniga: Friday Night Lights is a big influence. I’ve worked in videogame magazines for about seven years, and I was just an editor. I was the sports guy, and it was interesting how disrespected sports were and, you know, it was a funny role because sports people are sort of bullies and the RPG—the role-playing game people— are kind of the bullied nerds. That’s the dynamic through videogames. In my mind, I was like, No, I just like sport games. I like sports. I’m not a jerk about it. But I was definitely motivated and moved to make something in sports that reflected the things that I loved that had been done about sports, like Friday Night Lights and the Rudys and those kind of films. I didn’t care about the Varsity Blues kind of vibe as much. For us, we wanted to make something emotional, and we wanted to make it funny because we’re just sort of funny to one another. I re-watched a lot of the sports stuff that had come out. And it is cool to be nominated amongst videogames that are more traditionally known to tell stories, and it’s curious because it’s really surprising to people. But Mike and I knew going in that this was going to definitely be something that people had never seen before, especially in a sports game.

Daniel Stayton: When you guys were writing the script, how did you put in where the game play would actually come in? Did you put that in the script or was that like added later?

Michael Young: Because we wanted it to feel like a movie, we agreed, let’s sit down and write the linear movie version, but any time we come to a spot where we think this would be a really interesting choice, or there’s going to be some game play here, we would mark it. But it gets so big. I think the long form of the script, of content was 350 pages of stuff. You’d get so diverted if you went deep into one game, or the sub-branch. So, we wrote a movie we liked, like our true version of it, and then we went back and attached all those moments. And then we tested the choices and made sure they felt right. But, yeah, it was a lot of pages. Some 300 plus.

JR Lemon in a scene from <i>Madden NFL 18: Longshot</i>.

Daniel Stayton: How did you guys react when, not only did you find out that you guys got nominated, but you got nominated alongside three other single player story modes? Like Futurama, Dishonored, Horizon Zero Dawn.

Michael Young: It was the most validating thing of my career because I was told by an executive at one point three, four years ago when I pitched Longshot—he was confused, and he’s like, “You can’t write this. You can’t direct it.” And I was like, “Well, that’s the whole point of me pitching it. Like this is what I want to make. This specific story.” It was super depressing, but it made me want it more, and I actually really respect why he said it because it’s not an easy thing to do. So for Madden to have a story that is with four other, three other best stories of the year, and there are some stories that I’ve played from games this year that I’m like, “Holy shit!” that aren’t on that [WGA nominee list]. Just them giving me a WGA card honestly made me feel like, “Oh, yeah, I’m not this fraud. I can write.” And every day when you’re writing you feel like a fraud. You’re like fighting the feeling of, this isn’t good and maybe this thing is sort of good because it’s lucky, or how can I even do another one? But it’s a dream come true because I love story games.

In 1999, my goal was to create a story game and it was very difficult because the technology was so far behind. Sports didn’t do any kind of story. And I think we did something that’s very unique. I do wish it got out more to just regular people because I’ve met so many people who won’t ever buy Madden and don’t even know it exists because it’s locked inside this simulation game that really intimidates people. But, I’ve had the experiences with moms who played with their son and they’re like, “This is beautiful, and I loved it, and I was crying at the end.” But it’s getting emotional in here.

Vincent Page: What was it like when you found out about the WGA nomination?

Michael Young: Todd’s in Australia. It was four in the morning when I got the email, and I couldn’t believe it. It was like a WGA request for images. I’m on set. I see that and I’m, click and it’s like “Congratulations, something, something, something.” That’s where I blanked out. I didn’t really believe it until somebody else, another videogame writer was like, “Congratulations. You guys deserve it.” And I’m like, “Oh, is this real? Like it might be announced in the public, and it’s like a real thing?” I start trying to call Todd and he’s not picking up, and I start sending texts and I tweet his girlfriend, and it’s like, “Where are you?” Because that’s the one person you want to share it with. But I didn’t believe it for about 10 minutes. It does mean a lot. It’s validating and it always helps your career to be respected by your peers. People might read something else we wrote. That’s the key.

Adrian Todd Zuniga: For me, I went to bed in Australia. So, I was hoping that it would get announced, but I was like, I can’t stay up two more hours to where I think it will. I fell asleep and I had a dream that we had gotten nominated, and then I woke up. I was like, Crap, that was a dream… or was it? And it definitely was. So then, I was like, man, and laid in bed for 30 minutes before I did get up. I just wanted to like think about why we wouldn’t and why we might get nominated and like, I don’t know. I was really nervous.

Michael Young directs Joshua Johnson-Lionel and Mahershala Ali (top), and the finished scene (below).

Michael Young: I was too busy to think about [the announcement of nominees].

Adrian Todd Zuniga: I went to the bathroom and then my girlfriend—who’s not the kind of person who opens the bathroom door—but she slammed open the bathroom door, and she’s like, “You got nominated.” I was literally going to the bathroom. I was just like, “Wow.” That was such a cool moment, and I immediately saw my text and missed calls. So then, I called him and texted him, and then he was busy. I was like, “What is he doing?”

It’s a really cool thing because I think as a creative person, nobody is asking you to do the things that you’re doing and it’s very easy for people to say that things are impossible. For a person to like try is just such an incredible thing. And on the list of all the [2018 Writers Guild Awards nominations], we were actually at the very bottom. I thought that reflected this idea of the bottom rung of the ladder for Colt and Devin, the last hour of Madden. I was just so moved by it. Like I said, it’s just flattering. Any time someone says, “Keep going,” like “You got this. You’re good, you’re good,” it’s hard to believe, but if [the Guild] says it, it’s easier to believe. I feel like this is a real push to tell us to keep going and, very importantly, to keep going together. I’ve got a lot of different projects that Mike’s like, “Yeah, yeah. Let’s focus on different things, and we’ll get them done.” To meet someone on a bench in sixth grade, to come together over time, split up over time, and then come together for sort of a dream thing—the story of that is really cool to me and to achieve this so far with someone that is so meaningful to my life is very cool. So, waterworks, guy, am I right?