No one will ever confuse me for the world's biggest soccer fan, so my obsession with EA Sports' UEFA Champions League 2006-2007 back in 2007 took me completely by surprise. While the soccer itself in the game was merely decent, it was the ingenious trading card feature that completely captivated me. What grown-up sports fan, after all, didn't spent at least a little bit of his or her childhood collecting cards for one sport or another, poring over their collection, and trading cards with friends? I know I did, and it was that very nostalgic nerve that UEFA Champions League touched on so perfectly. As a result ever since, I've been hoping for this kind of feature in practically every sports game series around.
We've seen baseball cards integrated into 2K Sports' MLB 2K series and now EA Sports is getting back into the card game with a downloadable expansion for FIFA 09. Dubbed "Ultimate Team", this mode will be available on March 19 for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game and will likely cost $14.99on PS3or 1200 MS points. From the looks of the video, this mode seems like the true successor to the feature from UEFA Champions League 2006-2007, which is great news in my book. For the exclusive first word on this downloadable mode, we chatted with FIFA 09 producer Matt Prior:
GameSpot: Tell us about the evolution of this feature. How did the card system from UEFA Champions League 2006-2007 become the Ultimate Team feature in FIFA 09? How has it changed since the original game?
Matt Prior: The card feature in Champions League was very well received by everyone who played it. The Champions League product however is a much smaller product than FIFA. Because of this, we felt that the mode never truly achieved its full potential and is something that lends itself perfectly to the much bigger world of FIFA. With online usage numbers for FIFA growing so rapidly we also felt it was the perfect opportunity to offer a downloadable game mode for the first time. The card mode is incredibly unique and has never been available in FIFA.
The new Ultimate team mode is based on ideas from the Champions League version but is a completely new version and is a much bigger and a more complete experience, particularly with regard to online. In Champions League, it was just a game mode within the game. This time around it is the game, and we were able to put a lot more resource and effort into it. Just a few of the many differences are:
Create Player: Gamers can now create themselves as their team captain which is brand new to Ultimate Team. To enhance that experience, there are hundreds of created player items that allow gamers to make a truly unique player. Gamers can display their national pride by wearing one of more than 200 bandanas; they can apply hundreds of tattoos, and even show their club allegiance by sporting their team crest tattoo. They can also train their player up from bronze to gold level by utilizing the training cards.
Card Types: Ultimate Team features far more leagues and teams. In Champions League, it was just the five top leagues from Europe. In Ultimate Team, we have more than 20 leagues and all the players, which allows for far more interesting variations and the opportunity to create a truly unique team. Additionally there are about 15 brand new card categories which equate to thousands of brand new cards including training grounds, celebrations, tattoos, advanced training, Crowd and even free pack and free coin cards.
Competitions: Whereas previously the ultimate goal was to take your team into the Champions League and win it, there are far more goals for FIFA 09 Ultimate Team and an entire trophy cabinet to fill. There are twelve online and offline tournaments, each with a bronze, silver and gold level, so 36 competitions in which to compete. The offline tournaments will pit gamers against CPU controlled teams and the teams faced will depend upon the trophy. Play the British Isles Bronze trophy and you'll face lower league teams from around England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Win that and you'll unlock the silver. Another win and you'll be in the gold and facing the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea and Celtic.
Additionally there are online and offline league matches that gamers can use to earn coins and build up their teams without the pressure of a tournament. Gamers can even take a break midway through a tournament and use the league games to strengthen their squad and possibly get a few important gameplay cards to take into that all important game. League results go into the Ultimate Team overall leader boards.
Training and Development: Training and development also has a new format. Previously all training and development cards were treated equally when applied to players. This time around they have a bronze, silver and gold value, and the value will be applied depending on the player it is played on. For example, a contract extension card may have a Bronze Value of +10 games, Silver of +7 games and a Gold value of +5 games, so deciding which player to play it on becomes a little more tactical. It also means that training up the lower rated players is easier, but holding onto the superstars is a little more difficult.
GS: Why release this as a download? Why not just wait until FIFA 2010 to announce it?
MP: We wanted to release this as a download because we want to continue to innovate and provide additional content for FIFA throughout the year. The figures we are getting back from the online usage for FIFA 09 are quite remarkable. It's clear that gamers have an appetite for online gaming. Up until now, however, we have never really based a FIFA game specifically targeting the online community. We have released game modes, but not a complete game experience with lots of depth and variation. While it is being talked about in terms of a mode, it is, in fact, a complete game and had a full development team devoted to it.
In terms of timing, we are making efforts to provide content to FIFA gamers year round rather than the traditional once every twelve months. We think March is a good time to release it as it gives existing FIFA gamers a huge amount of new content to play with and offers a very unique alternative to existing FIFA gameplay.
GS: What kinds of card categories will there be?
MP: These are the main categories and within many there are numerous sub categories:
Players, Managers, Head coaches , Physios, Goalkeeper Coaches, Fitness Coaches, Gameplay Cards, Training Cards, Advanced Player Training Cards, Advanced Manager Training Cards, Kits, Badges, Boots, Balls, Stadiums, Crowds, Free Pack Cards, Free Credit Cards, Celebrations, Tattoos, Bandanas, Extreme Hair, and Training Grounds,
GS: What's the in-game interface like? Will Ultimate Team still rely heavily on player chemistry (such as nationality, ideal position, favorite tactics, etc.) when forming line-ups?
MP: Yes, the player's preferred formation, preferred position and nationality are still keys to building your team and improving the all-important team chemistry. The system is simple to understand, but can take a lot of astute tweaking to perfect. It means that, just as in real life, it's not just about getting the best players. To build a winning team, you'll need to get players that fit in with your style of play, your formation, and the players around them. It was a very popular mechanic and one that created a huge amount of variation amongst teams.
One great advantage of having it within FIFA is that it drastically increases the amount of players that are available. We now have more than 4,000 players, which is far more than we had in Champions League, so it allows for even greater variation when building your team.
In terms of the interface, we have completely overhauled it from scratch to give it a much more authentic cards look. It is also much more visually impressive with more animation and effects.
GS: Is there a limit to the amount of cards you can possess?
MP: Yes. Your "deck" has limits on the various different card types, so you have to balance your team and sometimes make tough decisions on which cards to discard, trade or send to the collector's album.
GS: We understand you'll be able to purchase cards with MS points or via PSN for cash. Will the rarity of the cards differ depending on whether you're using in-game currency or real cash?
MP: No, when we decided to allow gamers to purchase packs, we felt it was important that it was only a shortcut to get items that can already be earned in-game. We did not want to create a situation where gamers who chose to buy packs had an advantage over those who earned them with the in-game economy. Essentially, buying packs for cash is simply a shortcut. If you don't have the time to play numerous games and earn the in-game coins, then you can buy any of the pack types for cash.
GS: How much will downloadable packs cost?
MP: The price for purchasing individual packs has not been set but we feel it is important that we keep the cost low. As is the nature of any card game, digital or real world, it is down to the luck of the draw what cards a gamer gets in a pack. They will always get the majority of gold cards in a gold pack but they may not happen to be the cards they need at that time, so we are going to keep the cost low for those that may want to purchase multiple packs to build the perfect team.
GS: Tell us about online features: Multiplayer matches, auction, card trading, that sort of thing.
MP: I talked a little about this in the first question. The online tournaments will pit gamers against each other with only one player coming out on top and taking home the trophy. These tournaments are where the real battles will be fought out with only the best gamers likely to fill their cabinets with the gold trophies.
Trading is a huge component to the game and another area we have greatly improved from what you experienced in Champion League. Previously, gamers could only post a trade for coins and the trade was either bought or not. This time around, we have implemented a bidding and swaps system. When a gamer posts a trade, they can put up a starting price and/or a "buy now" price and can also specify the length of time the trade will last. Players can now bid on items. The player with the highest bid when the trade expires is the winner. Additionally, they can offer swaps. Four other cards and/or coins can be offered in exchange, which adds an exciting new dimension to trading. An astute trade can have a huge impact on your team.
GS: Are there any other changes to FIFA 09 that this Ultimate Team feature will affect (such as gameplay fixes, roster/ratings changes, etc.)
MP: No, the updated rosters from the January transfer window will feature in Ultimate Team, but they will also have been made available to FIFA 09 owners before Ultimate Team comes out.
GS: Will Ultimate Team be a packed-in feature of FIFA 2010? What kind of changes can we expect with the next version?
MP: As always on the FIFA franchise, we are going to see how the community responds to this game, review all of the feedback on the forums and listen to their suggestions before we make any decisions for future.
GS: Thanks for your time, Matt.
Let us know what you think about FIFA 09 and the upcoming Ultimate Team feature in the comments below.