The latest iteration of FIFA, EA's biggest-selling videogame, launches this week, and dev lead David Rutter believes that, yet again, his team is about to win.
FIFA 10 was approaching 10 million sales at the last official count, and a host of streamlining additions, radical feature changes and the inclusion of goalkeeper play for the first time in the series's history means that FIFA 11 will be "by far the better game" when compared to PES 11, according to Rutter.
The developer spoke to us on the phone from Vancouver to outline the reasoning behind this year's FIFA version, defend Online Pass, admit he has no idea what's going to make it into FIFA 12, and much more.
VG247: I want to talk to you about the 11-versus-11 mode, as you haven't talked too much about that yet. It's clearly a huge deal for the game. Going forward, do you think full team-play be an integral feature of the FIFA brand?
David Rutter: I do, in the same sense that the standard 11-versus-11 gameplay is. We're trying to simulate football, and one of the key parts of that, obviously, is that it's a team game, and that there are 11 people on each side with an assortment of roles to play, be it scoring goals, creating opportunities, preventing opportunities or prevent goals. It's nice to be able to offer that to online gamers too.
How popular do you expect 11-versus-11 to be? Do you see people veering away from traditional online play to try out the new mode?
David Rutter: I don't know if people will veer away from it. We have 10-versus-10 last year, and before that we had 5-versus-5, and before that, even, we had 2-versus-2 offline, or four versus the computer, or whatever, depending on your console, etcetera. I think there are a lot of different ways you can play FIFA now, and what they tend to do is appeal to different types of people. If you look at most different games these days, there's the standard offline game mode, there's an assortment of single-player online experiences, and there's generally some team-based multiplayer online experiences as well. With a sports game, naturally that's the sensible path to go down.
The 10-versus-10 mode last year was ridiculously popular, and we were very proud of how successful that was, based on the two kind of ways of doing it. Well, three, actually. There was ATP, Pro Ranked matches, and what we called Online Clubs last year. Essentially, all three of those were very, very popular. Pro Ranked is for people that aren't into having a clan, for want of a better term. It's just a drop-in match. You create your virtual pro, you go online. That was very popular. The Clubs were for hardcore people that generally want to consume FIFA with online team-play, so that's joining up with clans and participating in that. Going online and having a look around at these Clubs, there are a large number of them. They all have their own websites, they're all asking us to put their names and the names of their clubs in the game, and we'll flown a couple of the guys out here to Vancouver as well to talk about their experiences, to find out what they like and what they dislike.
Overwhelmingly, in the same way that manual players are hardcore FIFA gamers that are playing the game in the purest way, the online team-play guys are also playing the game in a purest way as well, with no AI assistance. And very much so, that's a different consumer set for us, but it's a very important one.
You've got got goalkeeper controls in the game this time, and you've shown movies of all that working. How difficult was it to get something you were happy with, and can you tell me what were the elements that you actually threw out?
David Rutter: It was a difficult thing to do and we spent a long time doing it. One of our key guys that did the Be a Pro in the first year that we did it, '08, he spent a long time working on this as a kind of pet project, and then as a formal project, but it didn't make it into the main game until it was ready.
When I think of being a goalkeeper on a real football team, I think there's a couple of things that spring to mind. Generally, there are lots of swear words, because I don't like being in goal. The other thing is that I seem to spend a lot of time not doing a great deal. When I am called into action personally, I find it very stressful and quite intimidating. I'm a little bit afraid of the ball. I don't like people kicking a ball at me really, really hard. I'm also not very good at it, and I let a lot of goals in, but then for the vast majority of the time when I'm not doing anything, all I end up doing is screaming and shouting at everyone around me. I think that's a similar experience for most people when they are in goal, and we wanted to adapt that for the game.
Firstly, there isn't a great deal to do. If you're a goalkeeper and your team's got possession, and the opponent's not attacking you, you kind of feel dislocated from the experience. So, we gave a really nice camera angle from behind the area to represent where you were and what you could see. Immediately we felt that you were too disconnected, so we put in a zoom-up-the-pitch button on the Back or Select button on the control pad, so you can zoom up to where the ball is.
The second thing we wanted to do was the whole screaming and shouting at your team mates thing. When you're in possession of the ball, we use the Action system that we had in Be a Pro to be able to influence the AI that has the ball, so the ability to get the players in the outfield to pass the ball to each other. And, indeed, they'll also pass the ball to you and do through-balls to you if you're crazy enough to rush out onto the pitch. So that's the equivalent of shouting at your team mates.
The other part of it is the intensity and the stress. It is quite difficult being in goal. We put in some assistance there, so you can have Fully Assisted, Semi Assisted or Fully Manual goalkeeping control, which is essentially the amount of AI assistance we give you on saving, and what buttons are used to make the save. It's a very intense and very difficult experience.
I guess the key part of the learnings we made were that humans have a great deal of difficulty in predicting where the ball is going when they're in goal and they're playing the game, so we ended up putting in ball traces that allow you to predict the trajectory of the ball, and that was a big hit in our focus testing. We spent a lot of time focus testing this.
There was one of the things we didn't get to – we tried and we failed. In the standard 11-versus-11 when you're playing against the AI on your own as you would do in a standard Exhibition match, you're not able to switch to Fully Manual control within that environment. At the moment we still haven't mastered that, so that's not yet there.
Online play is obviously a huge deal now for FIFA as a brand, and one of the biggest stories in games news this year has been EA Sports' adoption of Online Pass. Will FIFA 11 use it?
David Rutter: Yes, it will. For people that buy the game new, the game will have a little code on it that you'll enter in, and essentially there'll be no difference to anything you've experienced in the past. If that code's been consumed then, naturally, you will need to buy the Pass.
How do you feel about it as a long-term developer with FIFA? You've been with the brand for a long time. Are you nervous about it at all, or do you think it's a necessary thing?
David Rutter: I don’t think we’re as worried about it as some people probably think we are. From the day it goes live to six weeks after, we’re all on 24 hours a day, seven days a week call, to try to fix anything that happens on the servers or game that people are reporting. On a personal level, that’s going to cost me part of my life. I don’t get paid overtime.
I’m not, for one instance, suggesting that I don’t want to do it, but there is a human cost.
There’s a company cost for maintaining this kind of stuff, and we’ve always done it [at no extra charge].
Many people are enjoying playing online, and we want to continue to not just do that, but we also want to continue to make it better and better and better. It’s ridiculously expensive, and we want to try to deliver the best possible thing we can do. For the vast majority of people that buy the game, they’re not seeing any additional cost. The only thing they are see the hindrance of having to put in a small code at the beginning of the game, which will ensure that their online experience is unparalleled.
I want to talk about the management side. You've made some pretty drastic changes for FIFA 11. You've dropped both Be a Pro and Manager modes this time, and you've inserted a Career mode. I know you've talked about Career mode in previous interviews, but I wanted to ask about just how important player and team management is to the general FIFA player. Surely the general FIFA player just wants to play FIFA? Aren't there bespoke management packages that better cater for the real management geeks? How important is the management side to you?
David Rutter: Again, as much the same way as online team play is important, management modes, or Career mode, or whatever you want to call it, is as important. Different people consume FIFA in different ways. For the vast majority, the most popular way of consuming FIFA is in head-to-head play, be it you against your mate at your house on the couch, or you against a complete stranger in ranked or unranked play on the internet. Those are the two biggest ways people play FIFA.
The next biggest way people play FIFA is when they haven't got someone to play against and they're playing against the AI, and in the vast majority of cases, that takes place in what was called Manager mode. So, if you think the two biggest ways of playing the game are against another human, and the next biggest way is against the AI in a management mode, so it's a massive deal for us.
Be a Pro was also a massive success, and was probably the fourth or fifth most popular way of consuming FIFA – I can't remember exactly. If you look at Manager mode and Be a Pro, those two things combined together create a very powerful mix. What we wanted to do was remove our old technology and replace it with a totally new game engine this year, which pushes Career mode along. It allows you to play as a player, a manger, and a combination of the two as a player-manager, and allows you to embark on a big, long, multiple season campaign as either a player, a manager or a player-manager. It'll form the basis of our Career mode going forwards.
The inclusion of both play and management modes in the same package really reminds me of Gran Turismo 5 in the way that it caters for car fans. It's the complete car package. The whole idea behind GT5 is clearly to make this untouchable car simulation package. Do you see a parallel there? Is the goal to create the ultimate soccer experience?
David Rutter: We are trying to do that. I don't really like driving games that much, so I'm not really familiar with Gran Turismo. If I was to compare us to anything it would be real football. And if I was a fan that liked watching football on the telly, or a fan that liked watching football live, or a person that likes playing or managing football, or anyone that likes all the different roles and responsibilities in the universe of football… I would love to deliver an all-encompassing game that did that. We're still some way from that, I think, but we're pretty close.
You seem to have an extremely robust product now, especially after FIFA 10, which is still played a lot among my peers. People play it for a reason, clearly: it's a very robust videogame. Do you feel that you've taken your big step up this generation and now you're just left to feature-iterate until you get new hardware, or are we going to see another big boost in quality in this hardware cycle?
David Rutter: I'll be brutally honest: we don't know what we're doing next year yet. We're still putting the finishing touches to the packaged goods today [This interview was conducted two weeks ago – Ed]. We're focused fully on that. If you look at the past few years, what we've done is continue to refine the game based on feedback, as well as doing things that need to be done, so I think those are the two most obvious parts of what we do as a team now: refining and responding to feedback. Every year, both hardcore fans and people play the game every other year, or people following the franchise from a pork perspective such as yourself, are seeing significant improvements in the game itself.
The third part of what we try to do is innovate. Every year we try to do unexpected things and delight people in a way that makes them feel really excited about buying the game, not just because it's going to be better, but because it's going to be better in a big, wow way. I think the last few years, we've managed to do the things that have helped to improve the game generally without it just becoming a marketing gimmick, for want of a better phrase. We're going to continue to do that.
What that is for the moment, I don't know for next year. I know we have a very long shopping list of things that we do want to do, so it would be something from that list I would have thought, but at the same time our decisions and what we do with FIFA 12 will somewhat depend on the reception of FIFA 11, and seeing how no one in the public has actually played that game yet, some of our direction has yet to be determined.
The Madden guys this year took the pretty radical step of actually encouraging people to play shorter games. It seems to have been very successful for them. Is this something that you've ever considered doing with FIFA?
David Rutter: Yes and no. I don't think the FIFA game as it stands is a particularly long-winded affair. I think that probably the biggest issue with previous Maddens is that when you're playing the game you can actually end up spending a lot of time thinking about what you're doing; it's much more turn-based that real-time action, and that's probably the biggest difference between that game and our game, I would have thought. I don't actually think we need to worry so much about that, because there's not that many breaks in the action in FIFA.
How do you feel this year about the rivally with PES? Do you think that the perceived rivally between FIFA and PES is quite tedious from your perspective now? Is there a whiteboard in the office that says, "Kill Pro Evolution Soccer" on it, or are you just keen to forget all about it focus on creating the best game that you can?
David Rutter: We're aware of that rivally because I get asked this question in every interview I do.
I'm sorry. I have to ask it.
David Rutter: That's OK. It's not something I'm bored of talking about, and I'm on record as saying that in my past life I absolutely love Pro Evo. The thing for me is that I look at our game and I look at theirs, ours is by far the better game, as far as I'm concerned. I think there's a natural rivalry there in the same way there is between Audi and BMW, or Ford and Vauxhall. In many respects I think that benefits consumers. It certainly keeps me going. I am a very competitive person, and the people on our team our team are very competitive. I've said it a number of times: if you're a videogamer you're generally a very competitive person; if you like football, you're probably quite competitive; so if you love football, love videogames and love competing, and you're going to go head-to-head with a bunch of other people like that and try to outdo each other, then it's a pretty potent recipe for success. I'm sure they feel the same way.