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Behind the scenes at 'Madden NFL 13' preview party

NEW YORK -- When the elevator doors opened at the "Madden NFL 13" loft in Times Square and I was greeted by 20 flat-screen TVs playing the iconic video game at once, my first thought was the long-gone 12-year-old version of myself.

"I wish you could've been here to see this, pal."

Sports video games always have been hugely popular, but none approaches the mammoth cultural impact of the "Madden" series, a money-making machine for both Electronic Arts and the game's namesake, John Madden, since debuting on video-game consoles in 1990.

On Wednesday, distributor EA Sports invited media members to play the next "Madden" game (scheduled for release Aug. 28) and to chat with the games producers and developers ahead of the televised announcement of Calvin Johnson becoming the newest cover boy.

I did just that, playing two quarters (Jets vs. Packers and Broncos vs. Patriots) on an Xbox 360 console. The gameplay remains smooth, and the updated playbooks are detailed and accurate. One notable difference is a change in announcers. Gone are the fictional team of Gus Johnson and Cris Collinsworth, who weren't brought back after their contracts expired.

In their place? Phil Simms and Jim Nantz, CBS' real-life No. 1 team.

The choice to bring in Simms and Nantz is a good example of the unofficial mission statement of "Madden NFL 13": Taking realism to the next level.

"Our whole goal this year was to change everything," said Mike Young, creative director for "Madden." "When you put the disc in, we want you to think immediately, 'This isn't the same game as last year.' "

Young wants the experience of "Madden" to match the fan experience of watching a real game on your couch on Sunday.

"We want what you're doing to feel important," Young said. "You put in a lot of time playing 'Madden,' whether you're playing your friend on the couch or just playing the computer. When it feels like it's real, and it feels like it's on TV, and Drew Brees looks right, and the cameras look realistic, and the grass looks great, it makes it feel like the real deal, you're living that fantasy."

That's the big picture. For nitty-gritty stuff, I chatted with Larry Richart, one of the "Madden" gameplay designers.

I asked what's the biggest change die-hard fans will notice?

"A total revamping of the passing game," Richart said. "Obviously, the NFL has turned into a passing league. John has repeatedly stressed how the game has changed with three 5,000-yard passers in 2011. We really wanted to focus on revamping the passing game, how it feels."

Ah yes, the big man. I figured all John Madden did at this point was cash massive checks for a game he doesn't play. The checks thing surely is accurate, but he also serves as a big role in the game's production phase.

"The coolest part of my job is every year we get to visit with him," Young said. "We spend the whole day, early on we pitch the game to him, he gives a lot of feedback, mostly the things he's an expert about: broadcasting, history of the NFL, trends. He's really a sharp guy."

I point down to the crowd 10 rows deep around an ESPN set that later will announce Megatron's victory (or curse?) and ask Young what it's like steering such a beloved franchise.

"When you do something right, people appreciate it," Young said. "All your hard work the team went through, five million-plus people are going to get their hands on it, enjoy it, play it, yell at it, throw the controller.

"It's a great thing to be part of."

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