Career mode is supposed to be the ultimate FIFA fantasy.
You take your chosen club on the road to glory, making every decision on and off the pitch as you build your legacy on a mountain of trophies from season to season.
In the last few years though, like a Premier League team with no investment, Career mode has felt stale. Iterative gameplay improvements could only go so far to stop the stagnation, with what some fans felt was a lack of meaningful updates year-on-year leading to vocal criticism from the community.
With FIFA 20 though, EA Sports is taking the first step to writing those wrongs.
This year’s game boasts a bunch of headline additions, as well as a few low-key tweaks that hardcore players have been hankering for. Things like more manager customisation tools, fewer samey contract negotiation cutscenes, and a meaningful look into immersion-breaking issues with fixture congestion and the growth and diversity of youth players are standouts.
And on top of those changes, where studio resources had been focused on other parts of the game, it now looks like Career mode development is in a place where it can move forward more positively in the future, too.
“For me it’s very, very exciting,” Alex Constantinescu, senior game designer at EA, says of the new features in FIFA 20 Career mode.
“Especially because last year we got very, very busy with making the Champions League integration as authentic as possible, so I was hoping to get that out of the door as fast as possible. We had all of these features in the back of our heads, but we just didn’t have time to get to them.
“We built our own internal tool sets for all of the press conferences, so it’s actually content that’s being driven by me as a designer without relying on software engineers to code in all the specific scenarios where you get asked questions and answers. Everything is driven by me and our team of producers and designers. So it’s quite amazing and exciting to get this much involvement in the direction of the features.
“Now we’ve built our own tool set, we have the capacity to build more and more and free up valuable resources so that in future years, we’ll get to do a lot more stuff. It’s a mode that’s going to keep on growing, we’re not stopping here.”
A major trend in games at the moment is everything turning into an RPG. It makes sense then that many of the changes to FIFA 20’s Career mode are designed to make the game more reactive and tell better stories.
Press conferences for example, felt totally flat in FIFA 19. You could only pick from a very limited selection of ‘praise’ and ‘unnerve’ options, and it was clear as mud what affect this interaction actually had on the match afterwards.
The number of built-in storylines that you can experience have been greatly increased, so now you’re not just relying on your imagination to give context to your season. And what’s more, your answers will have a demonstrable impact on the morale and form of specific players.
“I’m really curious about how people are going to find the press conference questions,” Constantinescu says.
“It’s a tricky one because we had to expand all of the possibilities, so not many players are actually going to experience a relegation battle because their playthroughs are more focused on winning everything.
“I spent quite a lot of effort and really enjoyed it – spending hours with the basic story and adding this and that to it. We had some nice references for press conferences, you pick some answers and the crowd murmurs in disagreement or laughs based on what you’ve said.”
Another criticism was that FIFA didn’t respond to stories that you created with your on-pitch performance. To try and combat this, EA has introduced Dynamic Potential.
Now young players that get game time and excel can grow more quickly, and have their potential cap raised after a strong season – especially good for solid performers in the lower leagues who don’t have high potential already.
“At the end of the season we take all of the players from the user team and look at how much play time they got, what their average match rating was, did they score any goals, make any assists, or how many clean sheets did they get if they’re defenders or goalkeepers,” Constantinescu explains.
“We have a scoring system and we use that to determine how we’re going to bump the player’s potential for the upcoming season.
“That bump in potential is going to be done gradually over the season. Otherwise it would’ve done a spike at the beginning when you started a new season and there would’ve been a huge spike in attributes – there was no linear growth toward the new potential.”
On the other side of the spectrum, it was equally annoying when your ageing superstars saw their ratings plummet despite still being the first name on the team sheet. Dynamic Potential is supposed to help this as well.
“For old players, their potential is referenced, then because their age is increasing we say that they need to start declining from there,” Constantinescu says. “But because their potential is increasing, that curve is realigned, so their overall should stay the same because now the gap remains constant.
“There’s different weighting between physical, mental, and skill attributes. And towards the early stages you have the physical ones that grow a bit faster, and even in the decay as you grow older, it’s the physical attributes that start decreasing, not the skill ones.”
Compounding the problems in-game, players in the community felt like the lack of new features meant they weren’t being listened to. This is yet another area that EA Sports is keen to improve on, by putting out more blogs and updates to better communicate what they’re working towards.
“Last year in FIFA 19 we didn’t do a good job at releasing Pitch Notes and announcing the finer, smaller tweaks that we did,” Constantinescu laments. “People just weren’t aware of them, so it didn’t feel like we were listening when we actually did. This was a very big lesson for us, to learn how to sell our own work better.
“Even in the Pitch Notes I realised we missed a pretty interesting feature.
“For all the leagues in the game we’re actually tracking the goalscoring record. We have commentary during the matches that supports those stories, so like if you’re three goals away from breaking the [Premier League scoring] record. And then in subsequent seasons you can beat your own record and it updates from season to season.
“I know that some people are really into competition stats, so we’re taking some steps in that direction to provide more and more context.”
A stronger line into the Career mode community is vital for not just for keeping fans involved throughout the yearly cycle, but to stop persistent problems from turning into memes and going toxic.
In FIFAs past, glaring issues have been used to underline EA’s supposed apathy towards Career mode. We all remember Petr Cech’s hilarious suit and scrum helmet combo, but when people are putting 100s of hours into a game they start to notice more nuanced oversights as well.
“If you remember way before [FIFA] 18, like David Alaba to Juventus,” Constantinescu laughs. “Then there was another situation with [Manchester] United constantly buying strikers.
“There was a bug in the legacy transfer system that we revamped completely in 18 and have been polishing since.
“It was actually because of Rashford. Because Rashford was on a fine line between having a good overall but not that good, so the system would identify that it had to find a striker better than Rashford. But then it would turn out that the transferred guy wasn’t better than Rashford so he was constantly the reference.
“It was trying to get strikers that were better than Rashford, but because he also had pretty good potential – and the overall and potential in the previous system were done in a very rudimentary way – he was constantly the reference point as the weakest point in the team.”
What all of this adds up to is that FIFA 20’s Career mode looks like a statement of intent from EA Sports, but there’s still work left to do. To truly convince players that the mode’s worth sticking with, then meaningful updates have to keep coming, and the dialogue needs to be more transparent. And according to Constantinescu, that’s a mindset that EA is committed to upholding.
“Probably because we didn’t take much care of it, it’s been somewhat stale,” he says of Career mode’s popularity.
“Especially in Europe it’s the go-to for people. If you watch football and you know football, it’s your go-to place to enjoy the game at your own pace with no competitive pressure like Ultimate Team.
“I think it’s pretty important, the community has been very, very vocal. It’s got people’s attention so we get to pay a closer look at what people actually want and deliver that. We have quite a big team that’s dedicated to Career mode just as there is with Volta and Ultimate Team.
“We’ve got a lot more. I’m a bit of a weird guy in the sense that in order to unwind from the features we’re building I’m thinking about what’s going to be my next move after this is done. So we already have some big changes coming that we’re thinking about for things to come.”
FIFA 20 launches on September 27, 2019 on all platforms, but you can play it from September 24 if you buy the Champions or Ultimate edition of the game.