Touring the Canadian studio behind NHL 24

NHL 24 Community Day

Earlier this month, I was granted a behind-the-scenes look at EA Vancouver for NHL 24 Community Day. The event offered an opportunity to go hands-on with the game, interview developers and see the motion capture process firsthand. I’ve been playing the NHL series since the early ’90s and the days of the Sega Genesis, so naturally, I leapt at the chance to see one of my favourite sports franchises in a new light and what goes into the production cycle each year.

Burnaby, B.C., home of EA Sports hockey

NHL Community Day lobby

Arriving at EA Vancouver, I was shocked at just how large the campus is with multiple divisions, buildings and offices spanning in every direction. The facility is EA’s oldest and largest studio in the world, and it handles a lot of the company’s global creative pipeline.

It features a massive motion-capture studio, multiple audio recording suites, over a dozen video editing bays and more. From major franchises like Battlefield, Star Wars Battlefront II to the FIFA and NHL series, EA Vancouver has plenty of blockbuster games on its resume.

First lookNHL 24The day kicked off with a “first look” at NHL 24 and all its new features and improvements. Mike Inglehart, senior creative director, and Chris Haluke, senior producer, walked us through what we could expect from NHL 24. The biggest additions this season are the new Exhaust Engine, Total Control Skills moves, revamped physics-based contact, and expanded cross-play. The changes are both on the surface and go much deeper to affect the NHL gameplay in new ways.

Feel the momentum swingNHL 24 momentum swingThe main headline feature is the new Exhaust Engine, which factors in player fatigue with sustained pressure in the attacking zone. This offers game-changing effects like goalie fatigue that slows their reaction time the more they get worn down with offensive action. So, if you pepper a goalie with shots or make multiple passes to exhaust them, your team in the offensive zone will receive a minor buff and make it easier to score on the worn-down goalie. The strategy doesn’t always unfold like this, but just like in a real game, sustained pressure in your opponent’s zone is going to swing momentum your way.

Dynamic crowds

If you’re the home team and exert this pressure on your opponent, the crowd gets into the game more than ever. EA has added new event reactions to help spectators appear more “alive.” You’ll hear the audience’s reaction to shots on the net, calling for you to “shoot!” as a period expires and more.

“It plays such a vital role in the emotion and what you are feeling from a visceral standpoint, on top of everything you are actually feeling hands-on, just hearing that atmosphere around you really amps up the moments and something we really wanted to focus on this year,” said Chris Haluke, NHL series producer, about the new spectator reactions.

(Left) Chris Haluke, senior producer at EA Vancouver.

With all these changes, EA is hoping to bring a greater level of intensity to the virtual rink, from controls to crowd reactions, to add a new layer of immersion to the game.

I asked Inglehart what the biggest changes are moving from NHL 23 to 24 and what gamers will notice most, and he said the focus has been on revamping gameplay.

“Gameplay this year will be the star of the show. We really made a concerted effort to refresh the gameplay and change the way it plays from the opening puck drop. We heard a lot of feedback from NHL 23 and that, maybe, there wasn’t enough changed to that product, so we said, ‘let’s go back and deliver a new experience,'” he said. “So if you haven’t played this game in a number of years or did play last year, from our sustained pressure system to our goalie fatigue system, which makes up our Exhaust Engine, our physics-based contact, our new icon passing, one-touch passing — there are a ton of things in the game that are going to change how you play.”

NHL 24 hands-on impressions

After hearing about all the additions to the game, it was time to go hands-on with NHL 24. Right from the start, I noticed UI menu changes. One highly requested feature was present right out of the gate, a “dark mode” inspired design, so the game is no longer as hard on the eyes.

In my first game, I decided to take the new human goalie controls for a spin and played as Ilya Samsonov of the Toronto Maple Leafs. There are two major differences to playing goalie this year. The first is the “Tethered Control System,” which automatically slides you back into position, centring you on the crossbar after you make a save. In years past, you could make a save and then accidentally move far out of position, but the new mechanic helps keep you centred, making the position more fun and accessible.

Another change for the goaltenders is “The Instinct System,” which gives you the chance to guess the location of the shot right before it happens, for a bonus on your save attempt. I found the system very intuitive, it displayed as a crosshair-style grid right before a shot came. I was initially worried it would slow down play, but it felt like a natural extension of the action.

Live motion capture session

NHL 24 mo-capCommunity Day continued with an in-person look at EA Vancouver’s motion capture facilities. According to EA, the state-of-the-art facility has over 200 video game titles to its credit and is one of the largest facilities of its kind in the world.

Matt Moreau, the motion capture stage manager, explained how the capture technology is used with live athletes to create life-like player movements in-game. The stage area, or “volume,” is outfitted with hundreds of cameras that capture players’ every movement to help deliver the most realistic animation. Moreau boiled down how the mo-cap technology works, noting that “each camera has a light it fires out, it hits the marker, bounces right off that marker to the camera and all the cameras talk to each other and triangulate all that data to create that stick person.” The “stick person” skeleton and all its data are then shared with the animation team for use in the game.

NHL 24 mo-cap

Caption: Live motion capture data from NHLer Rasmus Dahlin of the Buffalo Sabres.

Leading many of these projects can be quite the operation, especially as athletes of multiple talents and disciplines pass through the facility. As Moreau explains, “The athletes are skating on our synthetic ice. Back when I first started at EA, the best that we could do was rollerblades, skating around. It was close, but you can’t do really hard stops, really good turns. Now, things have completely changed with better playing surfaces like roll-out turf and synthetic ice to capture things as accurately as possible.”

As the capture session changes from different surfaces, the crew will completely shift the stage to suit the sport and talent. As Moreau explains, “Our mission at the studio is to create an environment that all the game team and talent have to do is just show up and focus on what they are doing. We take care of everything else, so we are kind of like a film set, but not like one at all, it’s a very unique production environment.”

The NHL 24 creative pipeline

One of the most exciting parts of the event was an inside look at the development process for NHL 24. I was able to tour different parts of the studio and see what goes into the game and meet some of the creatives behind the NHL franchise. From art direction and presentation to animation and physics systems, much has gone into the game. There’s a lot of talent, skill, and dedication to detail that ends up in the final product, so let’s meet some of the people behind the game:


NHL 24 animator

Rohd Santos, senior animater at EA.

I first met with Rohd Santos, the senior animator who’s been working on the NHL series since 2017. For NHL 24, Santos is responsible for revamping the body-checking system. “This year, we refreshed hip checks, elbows, shoulder checks, push checks and cross-checks.” He went through how the real player mo-cap footage is translated into his animation work. He then “cleans up” the sequence so it looks smooth from every angle. I asked Santos what his favourite part of the animation process is for the game and, without pause, he said, “I really like working on the goal cellies, especially the mascot ones!” I won’t spoil anything here but each of the NHL mascots for all 32 teams has their iconic dance in the game, along with some fun surprises.

Next, I chatted with Matt McTavish, principal game designer, who walked me through all the work that went into the “desperation save animation” when a goalie’s energy is really low. McTavish offered a hint: if the goalie starts looking unbalanced or slouching in their stance, be ready to continue layering on the shots, as this is a visual queue they are tired. The amount of calculations that went into the player fatigue system is mind-boggling. McTavish explained the different factors that come into play now with the Exhaust System and its physics-based calculations.

NHL 24 McTavish

Matt McTavish, principal game designer.

An authentic NHL experience

NHL 24

David Pritchett, senior game designer.

David Pritchett, senior game designer, shared his attention to detail in NHL presentation packages and beyond. From national anthems to updated ice projections, he poured over so many details and shared dozens of small changes added this season. He also spoke about the new dynamic boards, which offer “game critical” information like a period clock, power play countdown, hit plus shot counters, and more. New goal animations for NHL 24 also now share the most relevant statistics. “We are showing career goals, career milestones, or in-game stats like a hat-trick. We have 25 different contexts that are shown on the boards,” explains Pritchett.

Painstaking attention to detail

NHL 24 Sumal

Gurndeep Sumal, senior game designer.

Next, I was able to catch up with Andy Agostini, associate producer, and Gurndeep Sumal, senior game designer, who explained how they keep track of everything in the game. They log everything from types of equipment and player eye colour to hairstyle, skate strides, and more in a massive shared database. Agostini and Sumal even go as far as to reach out to retro hockey equipment companies that might not even exist anymore to try to find old-school equipment to model for the game. Their team enters lines manually for hundreds of teams and creates Threes Mode line-ups and more. They live up to EA’s “It’s in the game” motto in every way possible.

Carl Jarrett, principal art director and Erin Gillgannon, art director.

Crafting players and arenasMy tour of the offices ended with Carl Jarrett, principal art director, and Erin Gillgannon, art director. They’re responsible for adding player likenesses, scanning, and digitally building arenas.

It was interesting to learn about their process, as much of the player modelling, including hairstyles, facial hair and beyond, still needs to be manually done by the team. Even arenas still require plenty of 3D CAD data in order to reconstruct them digitally in the game.NHL 24 player screens

Get ready for puck drop

Overall, I was quite excited by what I played and saw at the NHL 24 Community Day. The game felt great, and the new additions added more of a level of playoff intensity. The entire team was open to feedback and is looking forward to being more open and transparent with the community.

I’m counting down the days to puck drop with NHL 24. It launches on October 6th, 2023 on PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S.