EA Sports PGA Tour devs talk about courses, career mode and tell stories

EA Sports
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EA Sports PGA Tour is here and features all four major championships for the first time since Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14. This also means that Augusta National and The Masters Tournament make their long-awaited return.

The new golf game features 30 officially licensed courses, an RPG-style career mode, and several new shot types among other things. Famed amateur tournaments also make their way to the game such as the U.S. Amateur at Bandon Dunes.

The LPGA Tour also makes a nice return, featuring the Evian Championship for the first time. So all in all, EA definitely wanted to spray to all fields with this game. Around the time of launch, we had a chance to catch up with a couple of developers to talk further about the courses and the career mode.

This interview was with Ben Ramsour, who is a producer for EA Sports PGA Tour, and Craig Penner, a gameplay designer on the team. Again, this was conducted around the week of launch and The Masters. We appreciate both Ben and Craig’s time giving info on the game and telling some fun stories.

Colin Mieczkowski: How does it feel being so close to the launch of EA Sports PGA Tour?

Craig Penner: For me, it’s surreal. We’ve been working on this game for so long that it’s that ‘pinch myself’ kind of thing and I can’t believe we’re almost here. This game is our baby, we put so much time, effort, and passion into so I’m just so excited for everyone to play it.

Ben Ramsour: Yeah, I’m with Craig, I’m excited to see the experimentation that people will do in the game. And the exploration; we have 100s of 1,000s of playable area in the game for them to go and discover. We got robots testing the game, we have a giant testing crew all over the world and you just never know until you get millions of people playing it. On a personal note, I’m excited to play it with my friends.

With our 16-player, MMO space of playing like, I moved from Chicago and I got my dream job here but it was really hard to leave my friends. They’re all excited to get in and start jamming away and playing after putting the kids to bed to come and have a couple of hours and chill and play the game so I’m excited for that.

I’m also excited with The Masters coming next week, and our live service; the challenges we’ll be able to create based on what’s going on at The Masters, using the data feed that we have from Augusta to create the best shots of the day or iconic moments from the tournament. And we’re just getting started; in the old days it was like, once the game is out, you’re at the finish line but we have a whole suite of stuff coming out over the Summer leading up to the Ryder Cup so if we thought it was busy now, it’s going to get busier.

Mieczkowski: You guys mentioned the live challenges; think you can elaborate on them a bit further?

Penner: Yeah so, one of the great things about our partnership with Shot Link is that we have access to know exactly where all of these players are going to be, playing certain shots and so we have the ability after a PGA Tour tournament finishes or even while it’s happening we can start crafting challenges based on an amazing shot that a player hits like a dramatic recovery shot over a bunker and so we’ll be able to create challenges that are reflecting what’s going on in the world of golf and really put the “live” in “live service” and make it feel fresh so we’re really excited to deliver some of those experiences to players and have them be updated the Monday right after a tournament. So I’m really excited about that and to have players have those continued experiences throughout the PGA Tour season.

Ramsour: This gives players some bite-sized things to do as well where it’s not just players grinding solo in career mode over and over again. It’s, not just having the Shot Link challenges but the challenge system in general but we have the online tournament system as well where you can drop in and be the top player in the world on a Daily Tournament or Weekly Tournament and then of course, being able to play with your friends; there’s a lot of ways to experience the game; different modes and of course we have the classic career mode where you can grind your way and qualify for The Masters like in real life and experience the amateur tournaments.

I’m excited for people to get into the sandbox and experiment with the different shot types and we’re all video game nerds and introducing this RPG element that’s rooted in authentic golf and seeing how people experiment and create their own personalities in their characters. And each of the courses have their own personality as well and so the marrying of that and the experimentation will be very neat.

Mieczkowski: You guys talked about the amateur side of golf in the game which is very important in the history of the sport. How nice is it to have some of these prestigious amateur tournaments in EA Sports PGA Tour?

Ramsour: We want users to have the personality of their character in alignment with it. So if you’re a young kid from Chile, maybe you don’t want to play in the U.S. Amateur, but want to play in the Latin American Amateur or if you’re in Japan, you want to play in the Asia Pacific Amateur. Bobby Jones is the Founder of Augusta National and is the greatest amateur champion of all time. Amateur golf is so important to the history and fabric of one of our key partners in Augusta and I think, recreating that and drawing light because ultimately one of the primary goals for us and our partners is to get kids playing the real sport of golf and if they’re exposed to the fact that they can qualify for and play in these tournaments in real life, at these amazing places around the world and it’s realistic.

We were lucky, we got to go into the Crow’s Nest which is where the amateurs stay when they’re playing in The Masters, it’s this old room on the top floor of the main clubhouse and we were in there right after Hideki Matsuyama won The Masters (2021) and we were with the archivist and I could see his mind was racing and I asked him “what are you thinking about?” and he was saying that each person that was a low amateur who went on to win Masters was featured there in pictures and Hideki had done that and the archivist was thinking “man, how am I going to honor this guy in this very hollowed space of amateur golf?”

He told this story about Tiger (Woods). They have the Champions Dinner which is right below it in the Champions Locker room and Tiger, when he staying up there (in the Crow’s Nest) snuck down to listen to what all of these great major champions were saying and so there’s so much history of amateur golf both and Augusta and throughout the world and it’s just realistic for what people can experience.

Mieczkowski: Aside from Augusta, you guys have 29 other courses in the game, including new additions like Tara Iti and Teeth of the Dog. What goes into the process of deciding which courses make the cut?

Ramsour: We do a lot of user research. EA has a whole branch that does Consumer Insight Studies and so we pulled our potential customers, a small group to understand what came to the top and the top one was always ‘major championship hosts’ but also up there was the top courses in the world, these bucket list places that, frankly a lot of these people will never get a chance to play in real life. Tara Iti debuted in the top five in Golf Digest; I probably looked at every top 100 that exists on the internet when we were crafting our initial list and Tara Iti just kept coming up as this beautiful links course in New Zealand that is very private.

Hardly anyone will ever get a chance to play that course in real life and they were so cool on the call, they’re like “you know what, we’re private, but we want to help grow the game of golf and we think this will be good exposure and get people excited” so yeah, it was really about pulling, and what came to the top was always major championship hosts, bucket list courses, etc. And then there’s Frostbite.

The engine is eight years more mature than the last time we made a game. Star Wars Battlefront was made on it, Battlefield was made on it; FIFA, Madden every year and so our audience said they really wanted to see the various type of terrain types that come up utilizing that engine. Banff Springs; it doesn’t host a major but it’s a beautiful course in the mountains in Canada. The number one course in the Caribbean is Teeth of the Dog which looks awesome in Frostbite because it’s all on the coast and that kind of stuff and so that’s what kind of went into choosing the course list.

And then there will be more. the 2023 major hosts we already announced. I just saw L.A. Country Club and it’s incredible, right in the middle of Beverley Hills, L.A. skyline in the distance, it’s just a really cool course. And then the actual playing area of the course is very unique with all of these barrancas and sloping greens. I can’t wait for Craig to go in and tune it because it’s an awesome course.

Mieczkowski: I saw that there’s an attribute system for each course in the game, showing strengths and weaknesses against certain types of players. Can you guys elaborate on that a bit more?

Penner: Yeah, that’s called “Course Fit” so we did a lot of work to look into the data with that using Shot Link and to understand, exactly like how you put it, the attributes and the personality of each of these courses and what areas of your game is this course going to test. So certain courses are going to have lightning quick greens with huge slopes like Augusta that’s really going to test your approach accuracy or your putting skill as well.

At a course like St. Andrews, they have these wide, massive greens which is not as much going to test your approach accuracy, it’s OK it’s you’re a little bit off depending on where the pin position is but you’re going to have to be a really amazing putter over there because you’re going to have long-legged putts all day depending on how far your ball rolls out to.

And so, that’s a really great way for us to communicate a bit on how each of these courses have their own personalities and how you’re going to match that up using the RPG skill progression that’s in the career mode with your created golfer. And as you’re building your skills and deciding where you want to invest depending on your career and what your goals are.  If you want to win at a course like Harbour town, you’ll have to be a very accurate driver of the ball, it’s a very tight, tree lined kind of course.

It doesn’t need as much power so you can choose to not invest so much into power for a course like that but more into driving accuracy, approach accuracy and have agency with your character on what kind of golfer you want to be and what kind of way you want to play and see that reflected in the game and say “OK, this is going to be a good course for me, that one is going to be a good one, this one might be a bit tougher, etc” and then you can make those changes as you go along.

Ramsour: Experimentation, right? Especially where Harbour Town is right after The Masters, it’s a completely different course and what goes into it. You know we look at the data a lot and we were like how does DJ (Dustin Johnson) never win The Masters? This was before he won it (in 2020) and when we were looking, all of the data says that his skills fit perfectly for it. And lo and behold three months later he wins The Masters so our data guy was especially proud of that. Maybe you should’ve made a bet on it or something to try to win but the data we have is just fantastic for making each of these courses align to how they are in real life.

Mieczkowski: Diving into Career Mode a bit, I understand that you have different shot types and you start off with a few of them. You can then unlock more as you progress your career?

Penner: Yeah, absolutely, I think that was kind of a great way to represent the pro golfer’s journey. There’s going to be a base level where you can start off as amateur like we talked about or Korn Ferry Tour; that caliber of golfer has a certain number of shots in their bag; your drive, approach, putt, flop, etc and I think there’s eight default shot types you can have off the start but from there, it’s up to you and where you want to invest your time and energy and which areas of your game you’re going to practice.

People like to think every pro golfer has every shot in the bag and that’s not really true. You know there’s a super high flop shot, you don’t see every golfer on tour using that shot. A stinger off the tee, there are certain golfers who are much better at that shot than others. Not everyone is going to employ that shot. The power approach shot is a specialized shot type that allows you to hit driver off the deck (fairway). Not every pro golfer on tour is confident enough to use that on tour.

Sure, if you’re in a practice round, messing around, I’m sure any pro golfer can try to do it and might succeed or might fail but as a simulation of professional golf what we’re doing here is saying that the shot types you invested enough time in and you’re conifdent enough in that shot to use it in a tournament and that’s what that shot type unlocking path represents, it means that I’ve spent enough time to practice it that I have full confidence that I can execute this shot when I have all of the tournament pressure under me and so that’s what it represents.

Mieczkowski: How important is it to make sure that the course conditions replicate that of the conditions we see in tournament golf?

Penner: I think we put a lot of that work in upfront as far as understanding and really going into the details for each course on what conditions are for each of those courses, what is the range of those conditions. We talked about how we would go on the grounds, we see it for ourselves, we play them if possible; we’ll definitely watch video of events that have happened there and then we had interviews with each of the course superintendents which has been incredibly valuable.

We asked them a ton of questions on the speed of the greens, the firmness, how much they cut the rough and their fairways, what types of grasses they’re using, etc so we got a really good understanding of how this course is going to play versus another one so we bake all of the information into each course.

They do have a different range of settings within that like a slow, medium, fast tournament speed that can be vary depending on the day you’re playing in the tournament but all of those settings are valid, they are tournament conditions that you would see on that course normally so no matter what, it’s happening and being set at that point, it’s valid for you to be playing that in career.

Ramsour: It’s interesting, we want to try to represent the decisions that a professional golfer makes on each shot in the game. We were at the WM (Waste Management) Phoenix Open a few weeks back and a guy hit a ball right by us in the rough, and we could hear the conversation that the player and the caddie were having. And I was so proud because it was essentially exactly like the decisions you’re making in our game where it’s like, I’m in the rough, think I might get a flyer here so I might take one less club.

However, I have the wind off my right, maybe I want to play more of a knockdown and take one more club and it’s like, seeing that golfer had all the tools in his toolbox but you still have to make the right kind of the decision when you’re over the ball ready to hit it just you do in our game.

Penner: In one area where it’s interesting as well on our game is that, we have this concept of bag loadouts, you have five different bags to choose what clubs to put in and swap between them easily and the way that this intertwines with something like course conditions is if you go in and go from a Thursday to a Friday in a tournament and you all of sudden see that the wind is picked up as to where before it was pretty calm but now 20mph or something like that.

What you’re going to do and what a pro is going to do is in that situation is look in their bag and say “OK, I currently have a 5-wood in my bag, but there’s no way I’m going to be using that club based on those wind conditions so I’m going to swap that out the 5-wood and maybe 3-wood too for a 2-iron and a 3-iron because I want keep that ball low and into the wind.

I might even change my driver loft down from 10 and a half down to a seven to try and hit a lower trajectory ball so you can actually do that in our game really easily just change your bag, you might have a whole setup based on course conditions so that’s an area we expect players to experiment with and we make easier for them to experiement with too.

Mieczkowski: That’s cool that you guys added bag loadouts and I think I saw some folks on Twitter react to that being excited about it.

Ramsour: It’s interesting, you know we actually talked with the Need for Speed team on how players tinker with their cars and what motivates them to add suspension or tires and that kind of stuff and that was sort of an inspiration to our creative team as we were trying to figure out how we were going to design equipment specing and bag loadouts and that kind of stuff.

Mieczkowski: You guys brought back Lighthouse Pointe and The Wetlands (fantasy courses from Rory McIlroy PGA Tour), will we see more fantasy courses in the future?

Ramsour: To be determined; like I mentioned, we’re going to be listening to our players a lot. We of course have this great portfolio of IP that we created in the past and ceertainly on our list as we evaluate and discuss but yeah, nothing to announce on that now but always being evaluated and it’s nice to have those in our back pockets.

For me, I loved the Central Park course that was in Tiger 06 but you know people loved Emerald Dragon, The Predator, and those kind of courses so we got those in our back pockets, obviously, making them look awesome on gen 5, you know, it’s not just a free swap and drop it in otherwise we would’ve already done it but yeah, we’re certainly evaluating.

Mieczkowski: You brought up the Central Park course and I remember playing Tiger 06 on PSP and I was like “wait in a minute, is this course in Central Park?”

Ramsour: Yeah, so I actually interned on that game when I was in college and I did all of the screenshots for back of the package and that was in the day where you couldn’t just take a screenshot from your PlayStation like you can now so I had to go across the campus at the headquarters out at San Francisco and check out one of the two consoles that had the ability to do it but I think we got a really cool shot of, I think it was John Daly in Central Park was on the back of the package.

Mieczkowski: Which courses do you guys feel will bring the most challenge for players? We know Augusta can be tough and we know Kiawah Island is famous for being tough among others but which ones do you guys feel will be the hardest?

Penner: Yeah, the major courses for sure. They’re kind of the boss battles of the game and specifically Augusta. I heard some people internally calling it Dark Souls Golf in certain ways when playing it on the toughest settings which is a pretty good analogy, especially with the wind going and what we’ve done with wind gusts in the game makes it really, really challenging and you kind of got to land the ball in the right areas and putt the lights out in order to do well.

It’s a little unfortunate that players are going to jump in there and it’s going to be the first course that almost everyone plays and it’s also going to be pretty tough on easy settings. So hopefully it doesn’t scare too many people away but it’s a major course for a reason and it’s an ultimate test of golf so definitely Augusta stands out.

Ramsour: I like that you called it a boss battle, Criag that’s perfect. For me, the hardest courses in the game are the US Open ones. The US Open is the toughest test in golf so when those greens get moving and the rough is up those are hard. I think the course I’m most excited to play is Tara Iti because it’s New Zealand, it’s a top course in the world, nobody will really get the chance to experience it so I’m excited about that one.