Fifa 13 [Interview] – What’s new to the game? Part 1

23 May 2012  by   John Robertson

Recently we spent two hours in the company of EA Sports, as various members of the FIFA team detailed the big changes to this year’s installment. Once again, it’s a drive towards realism, with all the imperfection that implies – and more convincing AI, a new first-touch control system, and a heap of extra animations are the big alterations.
After the presentation, we got the chance to sit down with FIFA 13 gameplay producer Aaron McHardy – a former professional footballer who made the unlikely move into game development. He was excitable, proudly sporting an Arsenal jacket. And so, we began…
*Read our Fifa 13 preview.
IncGamers: I see you’re an Arsenal fan.
Aaron McHardy: I am!
IG: I live in Tottenham, so you’re the enemy.
AM: Oh no! This interview’s not going to go well for us. [Laughs]
IG: Last year was “Revolution, not evolution.” Is this year the other way around?
AM: Ha! It’s kind of funny – we’ve been coming out with the line, “The revolution continues,” which is kind of ridiculous when you think about it. But last year was very much about setting the foundation. We made some big shifts in the way we develop FIFA and changes in the way the game plays when we introduced the Player Impact Engine. And this year, a lot of it is about taking advantage of those changes that we made.
The tactical defending that we put in, it created a lot of opportunities for space on the pitch. So we’ve designed features to A) bring the game into a little bit more balance with first-touch control, and create more opportunities for that battle for possession with first-touch control again, as well as what we’ve been doing with our new version of the Player Impact Engine, and B) we’ve done things with attacking intelligence so that players can exploit that space a little bit more, and play with more creativity and more freedom in attack.
Those two things – fighting those battles for possession, and finding that creativity and freedom in attack – are the two things that came together that we really wanted to focus on this year, that allowed us to take advantage of the big changes we made in FIFA 12.

IG: So you’re heading down the route of more realism. Whereas many developers working on regularly updated game franchises are looking to make each one more precise, the nature of football means you’re trying to make a less precise game…
AM: [Laughs] That’s an interesting way of looking at it – with the first-touch control, most definitely. I think it’s an interesting problem we have all the time in trying to make the most fun game that we can. We have the luxury of modelling the greatest game in the world that there is already, which is football. All we have to do is really look at that to see what happens – what makes interesting situations when we’re watching a match, when we’re watching a London derby and we’re thinking, “What is it that makes this so gripping that it makes people want to fight each other over it? What is it that makes people so passionate about football all over the world?” And then we can break that down into its smaller elements, and that’s kind of where the crux of a lot of the features we’ve designed comes from.
With first-touch control that’s exactly what we did: we looked at the real game and how players control the ball, and we looked at the opportunities they have when they’re in possession. Tactical defending in FIFA 12 was all about changing the way you thought about defending. But then people told us, “Well, there could have been more opportunities for you to win back possession.” And that’s what we’re focusing on this year, which is why we keep talking about creating that battle for possession, using the Player Impact Engine to do that.
And one of the fundamental things we had to do with that was create more separation between the player that controls the ball and the ball itself, so you as the defender have the opportunity to make that split-second decision of, “Do I go in now? Do I barge him off with my body? Do I go straight for the ball?”. This is the science that makes defending interesting, and that’s what we wanted to focus on – again, it came from the changes in FIFA 12, which gave us the opportunity to focus on these details in 13, and that’s where the birth of these features comes from.
IG: It’s interesting, because I was going to ask, “Is there a danger that as you simulate more human error, you lose some of the player skill?” But actually, it seems that the skill is just more cerebral now.
AM: Yeah, totally. The first thing that comes into people’s heads when they see our presentation on first-touch control is, “Oh my God, I’m not going to be able to string any passes together any more.” But it’s not like that at all. And I think the confidence to make this change comes from the learnings that we’ve had in our kicking error system. Over the last five years we’ve been developing that system, and it’s very much based on context. Now, it makes some strikes of the ball very difficult – the one I showed in my presentation was that 180 degree shot where I’m facing back-to-goal and trying to spin around the striker, that becomes very difficult. But because that becomes very difficult, the game becomes better, because now you have to work to create the right opportunity, not just any opportunity.
Some games where maybe that shot is successful, all you have to really do is get down to their end of the pitch and you can have a pop and try your luck. But in FIFA, you need to create that situation where you’re running around the target, everything’s laid out perfectly, and that becomes the story of the game. How do you create that chance? What is my story for creating an opportunity versus you? What is your story for creating an opportunity versus me? You’ve got a big tall striker so your story is, “I’m gonna win by force.” I’ve got a five foot two striker – I need to play a through-ball so he can get in. They’re very different stories, and that’s where the engagement and the enrichment of playing football comes from.
So us trying to bring this back into the game by getting the nuance of football allows you to find your different story. “I can’t do this because my striker doesn’t have the skill to bring this ball down. I have to find a different approach.” “I can do this because I’ve got this wonder-kid – the ball sticks to him like glue and he could dribble himself out of a sardine can – so I can use that to my advantage to create my story.” In those finer details of what seems like making it a little bit less perfect, we’re actually making it closer to the real game and creating a more engaging environment for you to play in.

IG: It’s funny – I was joking with some other journalists earlier about the idea of a story-driven FIFA game. And now here we are.
AM: Well, I mean, we joke about it, but something we discuss a lot in development of the game is: “What is a story in a videogame?” Some people say you can’t create stories in videogames, but a lot of FIFA, and a lot of the fundamentals that you keep hearing me talking about, are about building mechanics and building a playground for you to create your own story.
You go to work the next day, you’re around the water cooler, and you say, “Oh my God, you’re not going to believe the goal I scored yesterday. This guy took off on a run, he curved his run to stay on-side, and while he did that this other guy flew down the wing because he saw what he was doing, I played the ball in here, he played the cross…” And now, all of a sudden, the story has emerged from all of the things that we’re adding to the game, and you get to tell the story in the way you created it. And that’s kinda how I think emergent story does happen in video games.
IG: Ten or 15 years ago, FIFA was an arcade football game. Now, it’s very much driving towards realism. What inspired this shift?
AM: I just got this question before, and I think it’s an interesting answer too, because [the other journalist] asked me if I was upset that we’d lost the arcade feel, and I think we’ve got the focus on achieving the best of both worlds. I’m not sad that we’ve moved towards realism, because what you get in the arcade game is the ease of play – the fact that I can pick it up and enjoy it right away. And I think we’ve had a lot of learnings over the years about how we do things, so we can incorporate that.
The kicking error system is a great example. Ultimately, shooting is pressing one button. Understanding what is the right context to shoot in is where you get that reward from when you’re playing football. Same thing with the features we’re trying to add this year. First-touch control – controlling the ball is something that happens automatically, and you don’t really focus on that typical button combination to make it happen. You just run your player – that’s all you do. But understanding how you construct an opportunity so that you’re minimising the amount of error that you get in their tracks is something that you can do on a cerebral level, and it’s easy to understand. So you can get the immediate enjoyment from the game, but you also get to enjoy the depth of football as it exists outside in the real world in the video game form. When you marry the two you get a better product, and I think that’s why we’ve found a lot of success in FIFA.
*Check back for part two in the coming days.

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