Quick Hit Will Let Players Pit Football Skills Against Legendary NFL Coaches
Even if you were a coach in the National Football League, you’d never get a chance to test your tactics on the field against famous coaches like Brian Billick, Bill Cowher, Jimmy Johnson, Tom Landry, or Dan Reeves—because they’re all retired (and Landry is deceased). But that’s exactly what players will be able to do online at Quick Hit, the football strategy game to be launched next month by the Foxborough, MA, startup of the same name.
As I explained in my profile of Quick Hit back in May, the company’s game is a free, advertising-supported football simulator where players act as coaches, assembling a team of athletes with a variety of skills and choosing plays for them to run against the opposing team—which might be coached by another player, or might be an AI (a software program or “artificial intelligence,” in gamer lingo). Quick Hit announced today that in single-player mode, players will have the option of playing against AIs customized to recreate the styles of Billick, Johnson, Landry, and Reeves. (The company had already signed Cowher, the former Pittsburgh Steelers coach who is now a CBS Sports analyst, as its “head coach.”)
The upgrade is meant to benefit players, but it’s also a kind of insurance policy, says Jeff Anderson, the startup’s CEO. Quick Hit will exit its private beta testing phase and open up to the public on September 9, one day before the Steelers face the Tennessee Titans on opening day of the real NFL season. Quick Hit has no way to predict whether the lobby area, where players meet up to start one-on-one games, will be empty or full. So having interesting AIs to play against will give visitors something to do right away.
“Frankly, too, there are times when a player doesn’t want to play another player and feel that competitive pressure, but just practice against an AI,” says Anderson. “That way you can train up your players and get some new skills.” A points system built into Quick Hit rewards players for various accomplishments. Defeating the NFL AIs, who are all part of the game’s highest difficulty setting, will bring “much larger bonuses,” Anderson says, meaning the player’s team will be in stronger shape for the next game.
The decision to add the new AIs came only a couple of months ago, despite the fact that the clock on the company’s beta testing was rapidly winding down. “We had Bill Cowher up at our offices doing some voice recording, and after the heavy lifting we sat him down and asked him if he wanted to play a game with us,” says Anderson. “Not only did he have fun, but what was fascinating to us was how he would look at the plays—more like an expert chess player, linking players to create a winning strategy. Clearly, this man has spent his life and his entire craft focused on this art. We realized how fun it was to watch him do that, and thought about how we could bring that experience to life for our users.”
Anderson says the company concluded that it needed to recruit a series of retired coaching icons “and have each of them come in with their own approach, style, and playbook and do a faithful representation of what it would be like to play each of these guys for real.”
So how does Quick Hit transform a real coach into an AI? “The way you play football is ultimately by looking at the team and the players on the team,” says Anderson. “So the first thing we do is construct the teams to be emblematic of the real teams those coaches built.”
Quick Hit doesn’t have a license from the National Football League, so it can’t explicitly recreate certain players—but it can model them through software settings. “When you think of Brian Billick, he had an amazing linebacker in Ray Lewis, and he built his entire defense around a guy like that. Landry had a different approach with guys like Randy White and [Ed] ‘Too Tall’ Jones,” Anderson says. “So we create teams reflecting the personnel they had.”
Next, Quick Hit’s programmers looked at how the coaches marshalled their resources. “How did they use their skill to get the best out of those players? The next step for us is to look at the playbook, and that includes a variety of things on the offensive and defensive sides.” Anderson didn’t go into detail about this area, but the Quick Hit system gives players an extensive choice of plays to run on each down, so this part of the AI-building may have involved matching the coaches with existing plays, or perhaps programming new plays to match those the coaches actually used.
Anderson says Quick Hit worked closely with all of the actual coaches “to make the best possible AIs to match their play patterns, within the constraints of our software. Some of them went above and beyond and got very deep into crafting the AIs to match their personalities and experience.”
The exception, of course, is Tom Landry, the fedora-wearing coach who led the Dallas Cowboys to five Superbowl appearances, won two of them, and died in 2000. Says Anderson, “We didn’t have the opportunity, obviously, to work with Coach Landry, but we worked with the estate, and we had some good resources available to us—documentaries and historical footage that lets you look at the kinds of plays they ran and the formations they set.”
Football fans will be able to go up against Landry and the other coaches just 15 days from now. Ironically, Westwood, MA-based Turbine, where Anderson was CEO until 2007, has announced that it will launch a new, free version of Dungeons & Dragons Online, one of its massively multiplayer online games, on September 9, the same day as Quick Hit. But Anderson isn’t too worried about competition from the fantasy title. “I assume it’s a coincidence,” he says. “They’re not really the same kind of audience.”