Fifa 14 on PS4 and Xbox One: spectacle, human drama and better headers
(Guardian Web Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) At the Electronic Arts stand in the business hall at Gamescom, a couple of demo units were offering hands-on time with Fifa 14 on PlayStation 4. There was always a crowd around the screens; every journalist I talked to had spent time there, either waiting impatiently, or playing a match. It looks beautiful and plays with a fluidity that, in snatched instances, makes it seem photo-realistic.
But how much extra technology, time and effort has the team been able to put into the next-generation versions of the latest Fifa title? And what are the most obvious new features we can expect?
To find out, I cornered the game's executive producer, Dave Rutter, and asked about the big changes and little extras. Here's what he had to say.
At EA's Gamescom press conference, you talked about how you're planning to increase the sense of theatre and spectacle with the next-gen console versions of Fifa. Can you tell us more about that?
"For us, the whole next generation thing is build on three main foundations. First, it's about true human emotion, so we've done a ton of work on animation technology and animation variety; the way the players look and move. The second part of it is the behavioural aspect of the players – we've done a lot on ensuring they have human intelligence, predictive physics, so that they can avoid collisions, all that kind of stuff.
"The third part is about the whole scene of the game. And it is a scene: the players are the actors, but there are other things going on. If you look at broadcast football footage, we've spent a lot of time with Sky to try and figure out how we can duplicate what TV is doing. One of our producers spent days in the Sky studio, staying with them from the start, all the way through broadcast and then afterwards, to kind of think like a director does.
"The way it works is, there's obviously the story of the match itself and the players who are involved in it, then there's the meta story around the teams and the league and everything else. So on the one hand you have Gareth Bale leaving Spurs and joining Real Madrid, so in the build-up to that transfer, the camera and commentary would focus more on Bale, on his position in the Spurs squad and how it's in doubt. Then imagine a future in which Spurs end up playing Real Madrid, so Bale ends up playing against his old club … it's like the old story of when Sol Campbell left Spurs to join the Gooners, we're trying to capture that drama in Fifa matches.
"So we've created a Game Director tool now that tracks the heat maps for the players – who is hot, who isn't, who is going to overtake who to become the next talking point. This is all from the data that we seed the game with. If Lionel Messi is playing, he will be the focus, but if he misses a couple of chances, the commentary will take a very different stance. Or if [Andrés] Iniesta is on for a hat-trick, then the focus is going to start following him.
"Then we have some jaw-dropping camera technology with nice high pans over the stadium. There's also the fact that the crowds are now fully-realised 3D and exhibiting behaviours appropriate to what's going on. You'll see the crowd going nuts when a goal has been scored, but nothing from the supporters of the team that's just conceded. There are also sideline characters: interactions with the ball boys, for example."
Is this all about adding to the atmosphere, or are there ramifications for the play?
"One thing we didn't do a great job of showing off in the Gamescom presentation is the fact that there are no cuts in the game now. In the past, if the ball went out of play and we had to get the players down one end of the pitch for a corner, the camera would cut and we'd teleport all the players to the correct spots then bring the camera back up. Now everyone actually moves to where they need to be – we don't need to leave the game; everything keeps running under AI. If there are two balls on the pitch, say because one has gone out but bounced back in off the siding, a player will go across and kick it off. It's all just seamless."
Is the player AI completely different for the next-gen consoles than it is for the current gen versions of the game?
"Parts of it are brand new and parts of it are extensions. The actual footballing parts are mostly extensions, but a lot of the behavioural stuff is new, in particular what we call 'pro instincts', which I'd probably describe as the anti-collision system. Players try to avoid each other and any collisions that might end in them getting hurt – they brace for impact or swim around other players. That's all driven by a new physics system which is part of the player impact engine that we can't do on current consoles. The heading AI is also totally new because we can't run multiple players trying to head the same ball on current-gen machines. So those big bundles you get in the box – we can now do those, which is really nice. It's a lot of those things you take for granted in real football that you probably haven't noticed are missing from our game – that is coming now."
So it sounds like we're going to get a lot more complexity and intricacy in interactions on pitch now.
"Yes. I was trying to describe this to someone earlier when they asked 'what's the best piece of advice you can give to someone when they're just starting to play the new versions of the game?' For me it's two things. You should use the shoot button to clear the ball, because now you'll get up and do a really good clearance header. And actually for the attacking team the new header system is great because you can actually power and direct it with the stick – you can actually aim the headers now. And also I'd say, you should master the new shooting, which is nice. The synergy of being able to run up and take a proper shot, do volleys and everything like that … it makes shooting extremely rewarding."
Are there any differences in the shooting systems between current and next-gen machines?
It's a shared technology, but a big part of the next-gen versions is the variety of animation. Shots will look a lot nicer. But the system is the same.
So what do you think is the biggest change in the feel of playing between the two generations?
"Well, the most obvious change is the look of it – when we first started with it, we were sceptical about whether 1,080p would make much of a difference – it does. The resolution of the graphics is a lot better, but we're able to stay at 60 frames-per-second. It's super smooth and responsive.
"The other thing that may strike you if you're a veteran Fifa player will be the variety of animations, the believability of the actions and the outcomes – it's so well meshed together. The things that make you sit up and take notice are what I call the future physics, it's the pro instincts stuff, so the players avoiding each other … in previous Fifa's you had a player impact engine which gave you my catchphrase: 'a near limitless variety of outcomes'. But ultimately, that was a visual thing, you ran up to the leg and you either fell over it or you didn't. Now, what you can do is, the player will try to avoid hitting the other player, with a range of outcomes, so you have variety within the actual collision. You have these moments when a player will stumble but then keep his run going – it's so nice. The first time it happens to you, when you think you're going down but you don't and you get through on goal; or one of those moments when an attacking player has got past you, but you just manage to knock him off canter … all of those moments are really special."
In the past, players of both Fifa and Pes have been able to find idiosyncrasies in the game engines, which can be used as exploits to score limitless goals from certain positions. With improving AI and physics, are those days over?
"Probably yes, but at the same time I'm not naive enough to think that, after many hours of play, someone isn't going to be able to find something to exploit. In previous Fifas it's been Ronaldo at the front by himself, and then massive lofted through balls to him. We try to make sure stuff like that doesn't happen – indeed, we ended up pulling the demo on 360 and PS3 a while back because it had an exploit in it for near guaranteed goals. We have over 300 testers at the moment hammering the hell out of the game, plus the game team, plus extended sessions in the office among ourselves. It's a labour of love and we hate to think that stuff gets through. But going from 300 testers to a couple of million people getting the game at home … within 24 hours they've exceeded all the pre-release testing we've done. It's a scary proposition."
Briefly, the Ultimate Team Legends feature, where you're providing 40 classic players in the Xbox one edition of the mode – did the whole team just get together and go through their old Panini sticker albums for inspiration?
"It's a weird story. We've been talking about it for a while, and on the one hand, we wanted to make it appropriate for our fans, the vast majority of whom aren't going to appreciate a ton of players from the 50s and 60s – so we stuck mostly to the late 80s and 90s.
"The second part of it was ensuring that we covered as many countries as possible and all of the positions. Ultimately though, there are some stand-out characters who just make sense. A few years ago, someone asked me who was the most impressive footballer I'd ever actually seen play – and for me, Teddy Sheringham always sticks out. He had such an amazing awareness on the pitch, he outplayed people with his cunning and guile. But also as an England and Leicester City fan, I look at Gary Lineker and think, what a hero.
"But the funny part is, you talk to everyone, and they all have their own choices. So Legends started as an email thread and, oh my god, there were 60-or-so people arguing about who should or should not be on the list. There were some … humorous conversations."
Can you add to the roster?
"The plan at the moment is 40 will do for this year. As for the future, I don't know … But if it's successful, it's something we all feel passionate about."
Finally, what do you think about the next-gen consoles as a development team?
"We're dead lucky – the team that I work with is just the best, and we had stuff up and running very quickly. Both the systems are pretty good to work on. The brilliant part of it for us is that they have just opened the door to all this stuff we've not been able to do. The question around crowds has come up before: 'when are you going to have good crowds?!' There's nothing stopping us doing good crowds apart from the fact that other things have been more important – we've had to invest where it really matters to everyone. The football on the pitch has to be as good as it possibly can be. Now, we don't have to worry about prioritising things quite so much. We've basically done all the luxury items and we haven't had to stress about performance. With the next-gen consoles, it's basically down to, 'OK, what do we want to do now?'
(c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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