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Game Change – How EA beat Pro Evo and made FIFA great again

This feature originally appeared in Edge magazine in June 2009.

In 2004, French footballer Thierry Henry, widely regarded as the world’s best player, spoke proudly to the press about appearing on the cover of Konami’s latest football game, Pro Evolution Soccer 4. “I started off with the Japanese version about ten years ago,” he said, with an unexpectedly informed zeal that spoke directly to the series’ independently-minded fans. “I just love Pro Evo. It is by far the closest to real football.” For those who followed the yearly battle between football videogame big-hitters Pro Evo and EA’s FIFA, the significance was obvious. Henry had defected to Pro Evo having been FIFA’s cover star the previous year, where he had never made such warm or knowledgeable comments. Pro Evo, the critical darling which relied on gameplay rather than official kits and league licenses, was no longer just posing a threat to EA’s glossy juggernaut. It was winning.

Five years on, things have changed dramatically. At an event staged in the impressive corporate presentation rooms at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, EA have the confidence to unveil their latest iteration, FIFA 10, several months earlier than usual in the yearly schedule. Peter Moore, the charismatic executive whose arrival at EA Sports has coincided with FIFA’s revival, introduces the game’s producer David Rutter by applauding the team’s achievement last year. He boasts proudly of FIFA 09’s Metacritic rating of 87, extraordinary for a sports game and ten points clear of its old rival PES, and says with a smile that next year he’s told them to get 90. He means it.

How did FIFA get here? How did it regain its position as football videogame’s critical, as well as commercial leader? It’s a story of a development team reinventing itself, taking advantage of hardware generation switch to rebuild their game, led by obsessive, hard-working and bullish producers like Rutter. But it’s also about a vision of football, how it should be played and can be played through technology, a vision protected and put into motion by Rutter’s quiet, Scottish engineer counterpart, Gary Paterson.

Paterson has been described to the press as FIFA’s gameplay genius. If you were writing about the game over the last two years and wanted to discuss the engine, you were directed to Paterson. The reason is simple – he understands it better than anyone else. An Abereen fan who was “brought up playing football, watching football and playing football videogames,” Paterson understands intuitively the sport which his game is trying to capture and recreate. And, as a software engineer, he has a remarkable insight as to how this can be achieved technically, which has seen him rise from programmer on the PS2 and Xbox version of FIFA 07 to creative director of FIFA 10.

Paterson got his first job at Codemasters after he left University in 2000. Here he worked on the 3D match engine for management sim LMA Manager. The engine was designed to visualise automated games played by the player’s team, but in doing so it took the kind of shortcut Paterson would later fight against in FIFA’s code. “It used to be scripted,” he explains. “Like, the score’s going to be 2-1, make the 3D match /make/ the score 2-1. I hated that, because I wanted to play the game and enjoy it after I built it.” Paterson turned the system around – rather than predetermining the result and fixing the ‘live’ match to fit, he “made it so that all the attributes and stats were what drove the score, and it just had to be balanced enough so that it worked.”

Coincidentally, while Paterson was working on LMA, Rutter was putting his own skills to the test on another football management game. In 2004 Sports Interactive split with publisher Eidos and took their Championship Manager database to set up Football Manager at Sega. This left Eidos with the Champ Manager brand, but no game to brand it with. They turned to Rutter. “I literally joined and there was me and a couple of other guys,” he remembers. “We were given an office, we had to deck it out with desks, computers, recruited every single developer of the studio. From recruitment of staff to launching the game was about a year. That was an /interesting/ period in my life.”

Both Paterson and Rutter are very open about the fact that before they joined EA, they were Pro Evo players. “I hadn’t played FIFA since, I think, Road To World Cup 98,” admits Paterson. “What it boiled down to for me was that it wasn’t nearly as balanced or as fun or as realistic. I can remember picking up [FIFA] 2003, and playing one game and just, I wasn’t really blown away by it. You could see they were moving in the right direction, but they were still a couple of years behind.” Rutter was the same. “I pretty much played Pro Evo exclusively. The first time I played Pro Evo on the PlayStation was with [ex-Edge editor] Joao Diniz Sanches,” he explains. “Joao went, ‘you’ve got to play this game, man.’ I was working at a company called Crush doing a football game and I was like, ‘we are so owned.’”

It wasn’t just that Pro Evo played a superior game of football. Like many gamers, Rutter’s preference for Konami’s game was tied into a damningly negative perception of EA and the handling of FIFA. He resented EA for “the marketing glitz, paying for success and shoving licenses on it,” he remembers. “What is Road To The World Cup? Why is there a Road To The World Cup game? You’ve just released a game, you’ve released another game called Road To The World Cup, and now you’re releasing a world cup game. Are you taking the mickey out of me?” he remembers thinking. “A lot of people felt that way at the time, definitely. I’ve worked in football studios for a long time, so I would play FIFA for research, but I would never play it for fun.”

Paterson made the move to EA in August 2004, when Pro Evo was at the height of its powers. “I fancied the idea of turning around FIFA at the time, because it was struggling” he says matter-of-factly. “I got hold of  information for someone who worked on FIFA Manager, sent over my CV and I got hired.” Working initially on FIFA’s management spin-off, Total Club Manager, Paterson enjoyed the culture he found at EA Canada, which he describes as “play hard, work hard.” And in contrast to typically negative perceptions of the studio, he found a general recognition of Pro Evo’s dominance. “I think when I joined they understood they were in a position where they needed to reinvest. It was the beginning of the change in their mentality around FIFA. You could tell it wasn’t quite right, and they were in the midst of transition.”

Paterson’s job on Total Club Manager was similar to the on he’d done on LMA, programming the 3D engine to generate logical match results. But the code he was now working with was taken from the full version of FIFA. What he saw bothered him. “I don’t want to downplay the work of the guys who were there before me, but there were concepts there that weren’t in line with how I perceived the game would be developed,” he says. Rather than sit on his findings, Paterson drew up a document which included what he describes as “high-level concepts around how the game should work,” and sent it to the main FIFA team. “Things like the success of a shot,” he explains. “It wasn’t based around context, it was just based around attributes. You have to start thinking of – is he under pressure, what kind of kick angle is it, how is the ball moving, what kind of animation is he using, think about how he’s going to strike the ball, and what effect striking the ball in that manner would have on the trajectory of the ball.” His message was clear. “These are methodologies and a mind-set and concepts that you can’t beat Konami with.”

Thanks to this document, Paterson was given a job on the gameplay team for the PS2 and Xbox versions of FIFA 07. His move came amid a more general changeover, as this was also the year that the studio unveiled its entirely new next-gen engine with FIFA 07 for the Xbox 360. There had been an earlier game for 360, FIFA 06: Road To FIFA World Cup, using what Paterson identifies as the “current-gen engine with some enhancements.” But it had reviewed badly – 62 on Metacritic – underlining the need for new technology. Andrew Wilson was the man in charge of overseeing that technology.

Now vice-president of EA Sports, Wilson had been Paterson’s producer on FIFA Manager before being promoted to head up the entirety of EA’s FIFA output. “We started with a very small group of phenomenal producers, designers and engineers,” he says of the team behind FIFA’s new engine, naming Kaz Makita (“now David’s boss”) and Hugues Ricour (“now running FIFA’s online business out of Asia”) as instrumental. A realistic appraisal of FIFA’s recent history was the team’s starting point. “The FIFA game on PS2 was not a bad game,” Wilson says. “I think it had an amazing competitor in Pro Evo, and Pro Evo had become the football game to play. Sitting on the outside of that FIFA team throughout the PS2 cycle, everyone was trying to build a great game, it was just that Pro Evo had secured the position as the benchmark to measure all football games by, and was doing a phenomenal job.” Wilson and the others quickly realised they would have to start from scratch. “What it was really about was using the platform transition to create a new benchmark. [We] sat down and went through what we thought next gen football was going to be about. The original vision was – wouldn’t it be amazing if you could play 11 on 11 football by the 2010 world cup?’ At the time that seemed like a ludicrous notion, even internally people were saying ‘Konami are going to go in a different direction and you’re gonna get hosed again.’”

Having established this ambitious goal, the team worked backwards from 2010 and decided what needed to be done year-on-year in order to achieve it. “The first thing we had to do,” Wilson says, “we actually had to make it feel like football. Anyone who played FIFA would say ‘it was a good game, but it didn’t necessarily feel like football.’ We had to rebuild the engine so that by the time you were playing as a single player [in an 11 on 11 match] the fundamentals would be the key to your experience.” As a consequence FIFA 07 was what not “a flashy product” as Wilson puts it. It didn’t have “whizz-bang marketing features” and instead concentrated on the basics of passing, shooting and running. It was designed as a building block, to be improved with each iteration. This is where Paterson came in. He had worked with Wilson on the rewrite of FIFA Manager – Wilson describes him as “an amazing creative individual” who was “instrumental” in the quality boost of EA’s management game – and was moved on to the next-gen team and began to work with the new engine during production of FIFA 08.

Explaining the methodology adopted by the new FIFA engine isn’t easy, even for Paterson. He thinks long and hard before settling on an example to illustrate how his game works. “Maybe I could talk about a shot,” he offers, before launching into a deeper version of the criticism he sent to the FIFA gameplay team, filled with AI decision–making and detailed contextual considerations (see boxout for breakdown). The general principle is a drive towards complexity and realism, removing automated elements of gameplay in favour of minutely modelled and finely tuned mechanisms which offer a far greater variety of potential outcomes. “I think fundamentally one of the things which changed in the way we build the game is we stay away from any kind of scripting,” Paterson confirms. “Before, when there were two-player interactions, we would script them. Two players would come together in current-gen for a header, and we would put them into scripted animation. So, you know, they put their arms around each other, and you couldn’t do anything about it, once it started. It looked really nice, but the outcomes from it were very limited.” The solution is to remove the shortcuts and build a system which relies on logic. Rather than simply coding ‘defender wins header’, “we have to make a system which makes the defender win, by using logical factors like height, weight, strength, heading ability,” explains Paterson. “We don’t script anything like that, it’s just ‘here’s the situation, here’s the context, here’s what’s logical, that’s what’s happened.’ It becomes harder for us to design, but fundamentally it gives you the variety and the jump-out-of-your-seat moments you’re looking for.”

This drive to complexity and authenticity is something that FIFA shares with other leading sports titles. Only two current games can boast a Metacritic rating higher than FIFA 09 – NHL 09, also made by EA at Vancouver, with 88, and Sony’s recently released baseball game, MLB 09: The Show, which has settled on the magical 90. Like FIFA, they’re both characterised by deep and strong core gameplay, backed up by an eye for obsessive detail. So is realism ultimately what lies behind the success of these games? “We do strive for a lot of realism, but I wouldn’t say always,” Paterson explains. “I think we’re probably 80% of the way to simulation and then we tone it back a little bit, and try to get this balance between fun and frustration.” He gives an example – acceleration speed. “Football’s about moving a man one way so you can beat him another. So if you have a game where a defender can go from zero to sprint in, like, half a second, even if you beat him he’s right back at you, so there’s no depth there.” In previous years FIFA’s players had been too quick, so Paterson’s team researched the acceleration curve of real-life sprinters. “It’s actually six seconds, six and a half seconds into a 100 metre sprint, [they’re] at full speed,” he says. “It curves very fast, and then it tapers off at the end. Obviously, six seconds to get to full speed you’re thinking, ‘You can’t have that in FIFA’, so we mimicked the curve, but made it, I think, two and half seconds. So you still get a lot of the benefits of it – if you can kick the ball past the defender and get yourself up to full speed it’s going to take him a while to accelerate. You’ve got to create this kind of balance, ‘there’s real life, and here’s what we’ve done.’ We take the concept of real life and bend it.”

Released in September 2007, FIFA 08 was another step forward, scoring a Metacritic rating of 82 on PS3 and 83 on 360. Rutter arrived at EA in August, just as the game was being readied for shipping, taking over the producer role vacated by 08’s Joe Booth. “When I talk to people about it I always say it was like turning to the dark side” says Rutter of the company he resented for so long. Contacted by a studio recruiter through professional networking site LinkedIn, Rutter was at first apprehensive, but after several phone interviews agreed to travel to Vancouver for a face-to-face meeting. “FIFA 08 hadn’t come out at that point, so I went and bought my own copy of FIFA 07 and UEFA Champions League and played those games to death,” he remembers. “I thought, ‘I can’t turn up and not know anything about their games’. And I actually thought, ‘well, they’re not too bad.’ I was pleasantly surprised.”

What he found at the studio surprised him even more. “ I went to the interview and met the guys who work there, and what was obvious was that the opinion the world had about EA Sports and the FIFA team was really disaligned. There’s this weird form of prejudice, that I was guilty of myself. [I was] speaking to these guys and going, ‘wow, they are actually trying to fix stuff and make a good game now.”’ He mentions in particular Andrew Wilson, then executive producer of all EA’s football titles and now vice-president of EA Sports Canada, and Kaz Makita, the gameplay producer who oversaw the first next-gen engine. “Those two guys along with Gary and a few other people went, ‘what are we going to do to make everyone realise that FIFA can be a good as Pro Evo?’ The only way to do it is to make a really good game. And rather than going the route of strange marketing gimmicks – 127 back-of-the-box ticks –  they went, ‘why don’t we put ‘really good game’ on the back of the box?’ and then just went for it. And went for it like you would not believe.”  Seeing the work that had already been done and the new direction the studio was taking, Rutter was convinced. “I realised, I can actually help, because I’m a firm believer in what they’re doing.”

As Rutter points out, the focus of the FIFA team was no longer on eye-grabbing features, but on refining the engine they already had in place. His first act as producer was to embark upon a press and community tour of Europe to gather feedback – “I would sit in a room and have 15 forum members from Poland march in and they would just give me hell about things they didn’t like about the game” – which fed into the studio’s annual appraisal process. “What we do is split the game down into what we consider to be the 12 fundamentals of the game, so things like passing, shooting, dribbling, ball physics” Paterson explains. “And every year the producers will rate them. We’ll get QA to rate them, we’ll get the dev team to rate them, we’ll get external people to rate them. We then rate how important these areas are to the game – so maybe passing and dribbling is more important than set-pieces, for example – and we use that to decide, well, ‘Where are we weak?’”

Rutter talks generously about Paterson as the driving force behind FIFA’s gameplay resurgence. “We have a lot of meetings about [overall visions] and to plot out where we’re going,” he says. “Gary’s not into that so much, he just wants to make the best football game in the world, and he doesn’t really care about some of the [other] aspects. His purity of vision for that side of things is what makes the game so good, trust me. And he is slowly brainwashing everyone to feel the same way.” But both men also understand that the series’ strength is based on more than pure football. Paterson talks about coming up with features, like the popular Be A Pro career mode, that “marketing can get behind, with a story for the game.” Rutter seems to agree. “I think a brilliant game will sell very, very well. But if I was to walk into a WH Smith and say to someone stood there browsing the games, ‘Excuse me, I’m David Rutter, I’m the line producer on FIFA. You should buy [our] game because we’ve worked on some prioritisation for positioning so that the centre back will always be covered by a defensive midfielder if you go up for a header’ – most people won’t give a damn about that. What people give a damn about is, does it play all right and has it got the latest kits in? If you look at what I thought was the dark side of EA – the branding and the ownership of a number of important things – that’s also the positives for a lot of people. It’s a very difficult line to tread.”

It was this combination of ruthlessly refined gameplay and expensive, authentic licenses that made FIFA 09 such a resounding critical and commercial success, and put it firmly ahead of old foe Pro Evo. Released in October 2008, the game reviewed exceptionally well (Paterson remembers that for a day the Metacritic score was 90 – “I took a screenshot”). It became the fastest ever selling FIFA title in the UK, topping the all-format charts at Christmas and boasting 2 million sales before the year’s end. EA recently announced total sales were over 7.8 million, up roughly 4% on FIFA 08. The old choice, which gamers had been forced to make for a over a hardware generation, between depth and playability on the one hand, and authenticity and licences on the other, was no longer the defining characteristic of console football games. Now you could have both.

But the team’s celebration of their success is tempered by the self-imposed pressure to better themselves this year. “People have asked ‘So how does it feel to have a game that’s finally beaten PES?’ or, ‘How does it feel to be the most popular football videogame in the world?’” Rutter explains. “I don’t really think like that.” Paterson agrees that there’s a sense of anticlimax, post-release, especially since the all-important Metacritic score takes around a month to crystalise. “There’s not one event where you go to and say, ‘right, Official PlayStation gave us ten out of ten’ and that’s the only score you’re ever going to look at,” he says. “Obviously we’re really happy with it, but there’s not a lot of time to sit back and pat yourself on the back, because you’ve only got a year and you’ve got to put the new one out. And it’s an even bigger challenge now to improve on that score, given where we are. We’ve seen Konami struggle to improve upon what they had. It’s going to be tough.”

Rutter’s outlook is similar. “This is going to sound really rubbish, but I’ve been in musicals a couple of times, and there’s this thing where you invest your being in something,” he says. “You have your performance, and then the rehearsal goes away, the performance goes away. Some of the people you were in the thing with go away, and then there’s almost this sense of loss which is quite deep. It’s not nice.” In fact, in the iterative studio environment of EA Sports, Rutter doesn’t think there will ever be a singular moment of triumph or celebration. “We’re proud, don’t get me wrong – you look at the sales figures, you look at the market share, and you go, ‘Blimey, we did alright considering what’s going on in the world at the moment.’ Then you look at the trapping, you look at the passing, you hear the commentary, you hear Andy Gray say the same thing again. It’s never gonna end.”

Indeed not. In fact, when the team show FIFA 10 at the Emirates stadium, they are already halfway through their next yearly development cycle. The refinements and gameplay alterations which will mark this year’s game from last have already been decided, and Rutter’s presentation highlights the completion percentage of the major revisions – passing, 40%, goalkeeping, 45%, defending, 45%. In line with the studio’s philosophy of making a good game first and marketing hooks second, Rutter boasts cannily that 70% of his team’s resources have been devoted to refining and improving the existing game, and 30% to innovation.

For the most part these refinements are minute, the sort of details which only serious players will understand, let only become excited by. The AI’s understanding of trapping the ball has been improved, for instance. Now, rather than positioning themselves to control the ball as early as possible – which often results in unrealistic mid-air chest downs – players will look for the easiest way to bring the ball under control, perhaps by taking a step backwards and waiting for it to drop to the floor. Through balls are now played into the space in front of runners rather than directly to feet, and those runner can now make curved runs, bending along the offside line to spring defences or arcing between opposition players to collect an angled ball.

There are dozens of such tweaks, making the game more authentic, more complicated, more contextual. But perhaps the alteration which will make the biggest difference to how FIFA actually feels is the removal of the standard eight-directional player axis, and the introduction of full 360-degree turning and movement. It’s the perfect illustration of Paterson’s drive to open up scripted and limited areas of FIFA’s engine with life-like mechanisms offering a far greater number of gameplay variations. “I find it very satisfying,” Rutter says of the new system. “The fact that you couldn’t do that with a player like Christiano Ronaldo just seemed pretty wrong…It’s one thing people saying ‘we want more kits, boots and balls’, but when you can’t actually do something as simple as go, there’s two players, I want to run between them…”

Captured in Rutter’s comments is the essential problem of working on FIFA, or on any yearly title: no matter how good it is, it can always be better. No matter how strong FIFA 09 was, and FIFA 10 looks like it will be, the team will always see the faults in their own game before their achievements. But despite this, Rutter explains why, for the moment at least, he’s not tempted to leverage his team’s success into a position away from the demanding cycle of yearly development. “People in the position I’m in and people that are in Gary’s position don’t necessarily have as much career aspiration for advancement in that sense, ‘I wanna be running the company, I wanna be doing this, I wanna be doing that.’ For me, I’ve got my dream job. I’m doing something I’m pretty good at and I’m surrounded by people who are bloody excellent at what they do… I didn’t move to EA or Vancouver because I just wanted to move to EA or move to Vancouver. I did it because I wanted to make a really kick-arse football videogame. I only know of one other place in the world that I can do that. It’s Vancouver or it’s Konami to be quite honest – and my Japanese is terrible.”

This text originally appeared in Edge # 203

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