With the 2010 World Cup in South Africa just a few months from now, an official World Cup game from EA Sports was a virtual certainty. After all, the publisher behind the tremendously popular FIFA series has produced the last three licensed World Cup games, beginning with World Cup 98 on the original PlayStation, the first WC game produced by the company after obtaining the license in 1997. For the upcoming FIFA World Cup 2010, EA is throwing a good deal of its development muscle behind the online features; the game will feature an online World Cup that will let you play as any of the 199 nations that participate in the FIFA, taking on other players around the world to claim sports' most prestigious prize.
We recently had a chance to speak with FIFA World Cup 2010's line producer Simon Humber to learn more about the game's features ahead of its April 27 release, as well as the process of putting together a World Cup game while at the same time continuing to work on the next entry in the long-standing FIFA series.
GameSpot: In World Cup years, you have two soccer games released in the same year from EA Sports. How do you decide which features will be in the World Cup games and which will be reserved for FIFA?
Simon Humber: Well, some features are uniquely suitable for World Cup, and others would be common to any of our football titles. Essentially my team looks at the preceding FIFA, works out what needs to be enhanced, and then looks at the World Cup and what that means to people and creates a set of features that give a World Cup experience to people who can't get to South Africa. "Everyone can play in the 2010 FIFA World Cup" is the mantra we work to.
It's not as if [FIFA lead producer David] Rutter and myself end up wrestling on the floor of his office to decide what features go into each game! We have long-term plans we revise each year and work through the prioritized feature ideas getting as many as we can into each game we release. The World Cup is a spectacular event, and we wanted to capture the excitement and the atmosphere, so the first thing you'll notice about the game is how good it looks. It looks really good. In a way, we're lucky in that we get to tell a story and we know it's all building to the climactic ending in Soccer City on July 11. Since we know the ending and there is just one ending, we can put together a bunch of great visual features to support the run to the final. Take a look at the images, and you'll see things such as:
- A gorgeous new pitch: Our pitch simply wasn't good enough, so we've made it look superb.
- Lighting of the players and environment: Clever changes to the lighting makes everything look more realistic.
- Camera flashes: You'll see all the fans in the crowd using their cameras.
- Seat cards: Fans hold up cards to form national flags and emblems in a show of patriotism.
- Fans: Close-up shots on supporters cheering on their team or despairing in anguish.
- Confetti rains down from the sky in the team colors and stays on the pitch all game.
- Streamers create a carnival atmosphere as they glide to the ground.
- Populated benches: Characters sit on the benches rather than being empty.
- Broadcast graphics: The same captions you've seen in FIFA tournament broadcasts.
- Close-up celebration camera: To really feel the goal-scoring moment, the camera zooms in close to the player as he responds to your celebration commands.
- New players and managers: More content for star heads and many of the team managers.[England national team manager Fabio] Capello looks brilliant, and [notoriously tall English footballer] Peter Crouch no longer looks like a naughty elf.
GS: What's the main aim for FIFA World Cup 2010 in terms of gameplay and AI improvements? Are there any control changes we need to know about?
SH: The game is not just about visuals, though. The gameplay has over 100 enhancements--some major, others subtle--so players will notice a difference in how World Cup plays compared to FIFA. So here are just a few of the improvements you'll get in World Cup. We'll talk about other aspects of gameplay closer to release.
- New chest traps that allow you to chest the ball in the direction you want to go rather than having to take midair touches after a chest to change direction.
- The ability to let a ball drop over your shoulder and move off in the direction of ball travel. Great for preserving momentum with lofted through balls.
- Improved the problem of trapping the ball too far and being "stunned," then taking too long to go and dribble the ball.
- Defensively players will now clear an aerial ball rather than do a chest trap first when you are asking for a clearance.
- Improved the "narrowing down the angle" logic so the keeper doesn't come out so soon and so far, making him vulnerable to the chip shot.
- Ability to change his save direction if there is a deflection.
- Added variety to punching, which results in punches sometimes not clearing the ball out of danger.
- Added more skill moves for the CPU to use depending on a player's flair attribute or trait.
- Better understanding of game context and situation, resulting in more intelligent changes of tactics/mentality.
- Manager now looks at who he has as subs and will attempt to give star players on the bench some playing time (i.e. Fabregas for Spain; Pato for Brazil). Previously he would rely solely on match rating and fatigue, leading to unrealistic substitutions or the same one over and over again.
- Teammates will now take more factors into account when looking into space inside the box when they are making a run for a cross to be delivered. I can verify how exciting this is having seen the way that Emile Heskey bulldozed his way onto the end of a cross in Andorra the other day.
- Improved marking for when the CB pushes up to the ball possessor when he shouldn't, leaving the team vulnerable to an easy through ball and 1-on-1 with the GK.
- Improved the realism of where players strike the ball to give more off-center strikes leading to more swerve and variety in ball trajectory.
- Changed the chip shot to make it more challenging and also to improve the feel of it--more backspin, better trajectory.
- Added personality to crosses to allow better players to put in more driven crosses into the box.
- Added chest and shoulder passes.
- Lowered the amount of power you can get on backwards crosses and backwards lofted through balls, forcing you to roughly have to face the way you want to pass it to for these types of kicks to succeed.
- Ability to trigger a teammate run on a quick free kick.
- Lowered the likelihood of the CPU scoring from FKs--they were too good.
There are also brand-new features for gameplay. I am allowed to mention that each team will play differently at home or away if under CPU control. For example, Northern Ireland are great at Windsor Park, so they are way harder to beat there than they are on their travels. That makes qualifying for the World Cup Finals feel much more realistic, as you can beat the smaller nations at home quite easily, but away from home you may have an unexpected battle on your hands, and they are the games that define who qualifies.
GS: How much of World Cup's on-the-pitch gameplay serves as a "proof of concept" for gameplay ideas in future FIFA installments? Is there anything new in World Cup 2010 that fans will see refined or improved in FIFA 11?
SH: The fundamentals of gameplay are ever improving and evolving, so every improvement in that area for World Cup will be refined and honed even more for FIFA. The game will get better and better with each iteration, and World Cup marks the finest football game EA have ever produced. There's the occasional feature where we would consider taking a real chance outside of FIFA. If you look back at UEFA Euro 2008, I really wanted to try out user-controlled celebrations. There were some skeptics, but we pushed ahead, and now it's a core feature of gameplay which you can use or ignore.
There are new things for World Cup which should end up in FIFA. But right now they are unannounced, so you'll have to be patient on that info.
GS: How is the development team organized for the World Cup games? Is it a completely separate team, or do certain folks work on both games?
SH: The gameplay team make all of our gameplay, regardless of whether it's FIFA 10, 2010 FIFA World Cup, or future football games. So as soon as FIFA 10 was over we sat down and worked out how we could improve what we had. It was very amusing to read so many reviews wondering how we could improve on FIFA 10, as the hardcore players know there is always room to improve and we are totally dedicated to making our games better and better and better. While there is one gameplay team who continually refine and improve the experience on the pitch be that for FIFA 10 or World Cup, everything else is a separate and devoted team on World Cup. We're all located in the same space as the FIFA team, and so there's much sharing of ideas and knowledge.
The World Cup is such a massive and important event, and this is the biggest World Cup game we have ever produced. It features every team in the world who took part. It is by far the best-looking and sounding game we have ever made and features many new innovate modes particularly in the online space. To be able to bring all that takes a massive effort and a completely separate team of about the same size as FIFA's but with a different creative outlook since you all want a new game, not a FIFA 10 clone.
GS: In previous years, the FIFA team has made no bones about wanting to bring the World Cup online. How does this game's online tournament mode fulfill that ambition?
SH: I am happy to say we have achieved that completely. For the first time ever, we have managed to get the entire finals tournament online so that when you play online you will always be matched up against another human player regardless of the time of day or night. You'll choose your team and then play the three group matches, attempting to finish in the top two before heading into the knockout phase where you're four wins away from lifting the FIFA World Cup Trophy amidst a cacophony of confetti cannons and fireworks on a cool Johannesburg night. Without a doubt it's the most exciting online mode we've put together and the perfect way to build up to a match on TV or carry on the experience after a broadcast.
I expect this experience to really speak to our core gamers, and I get sweaty palms every time I test the mode and feel the pressure of tournament football for myself.
GS: From a player's point of view, how will players compete in the World Cup online? How will tournaments be organized? Will player skill be taken into consideration when deciding seeding?
SH: We have made it as simple as possible. Essentially the online tournament will feel exactly like the offline tournament with the obvious difference that you are pitting your skills against real-world players rather than the CPU. The player will simply pick their team, according to the size of the challenge they want, and enter into the competition. They are then matched up against players in the same round of the competition and progress as they would normally through the group stage and knockout rounds. Wherever possible, we adhere to the rules of the competition, so in the group stage you wouldn't be matched up against players who have the same team as you, and in the knockout stages you wouldn't meet any opponent from the group stage until the appropriate round. These are the rules of the real competition, and they have been factored into the mode. The only caveat to that is if the only other player available online has one of those teams. We are all avid online gamers, and the most frustrating thing about playing online can be waiting to find an opponent, so as a last resort you could get matched with the same team, but in reality this is very unlikely.
Player skill is not factored into matchmaking; instead, we use the Battle of the Nations to encourage better gamers to choose weaker teams so they earn more points for their nation on the leaderboard. So what you will see is a much more varied use of teams than normal ranked gameplay. Playing as a smaller team will earn you more points, so don't be surprised to see the likes of Tahiti or Andorra featured. This creates a much more interesting online experience than the usual battle of five-star teams and worked out well on EURO.
GS: Beyond competing for the World Cup, what other online features will be in the game? Will you be able to play on the same team with other players online, for example?
SH: I'll have to take the fifth on this question at the moment. There will be other online announcements at a later date though, and they are exciting.
GS: An odd question, but with regard to the Battle of the Nations feature, how do you balance the feature to make up for large population variances (and thus the installed base of players) between different countries? Do relatively small countries like Honduras or Switzerland have even a hope of victory here?
SH: Not an odd question at all. It's one at the front of our minds since in the past there have been some poorly implemented attempts to have rankings for groups.
We have online usage data that gives us a pretty good idea of how many players will be from each country. We'll use that as the starting point to create a level playing field. Then after the game has been out a week we intend to look at the actual usage figures and make any adjustments needed. The intention is that it comes down to gamer skill rather than big or small populations being favored.
GS: We understand that this year's game will include altitude effects in certain stadiums. How will this affect gameplay?
SH: Altitude will affect gameplay realistically but subtly. We saw the effect altitude can have during the qualifiers when Argentina got thrashed away against Bolivia 6 to 1. Undoubtedly Argentina are the stronger side, but on the night they just couldn't handle the altitude. If you have ever been at high altitude you know that it can really sap your stamina, and you'll see that effect in game.
Likewise, the ball physics will be subtly different; the ball will fly a bit faster and straighter since there is less air resistance. You're not going to be able to hit 50-yard screamers into the top corner, but shots will be harder but also a bit more difficult to keep low.
It's not going to create unrealistic gameplay and might not be picked up on by some people. But the gameplay engine is quite mature now, and we can start to play with this type of thing to go a bit deeper on the experience.
GS: OK, wrapping up, let's have a World Cup prediction or two. Who is your dark horse to make a deep World Cup run, and who do you think wins it all?
SH: I'm going to steer away from England so I don't jinx them, and regardless, we don't have a good enough keeper. Assuming we don't win, I'd like Spain to win since they have been playing amazing football for the last two years. My dark horse would be one of the African teams. I suspect that on their continent one of them will make a run to the semifinal.
GS: Thanks for your time, Simon.