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FIFA: The Road to Redemption

Phil Elliott looks at how EA's football franchise has risen to the top, and what it means for the publisher's philosophy

A Game of Two... Games

The annual battle for football videogame superiority between Konami and Electronic Arts feels like it's been going on for as long as consoles have been around themselves. In fact, that's pretty much the case, for all intents and purposes, given that the first FIFA title to hit the shelves did so in 1993 on the SEGA platforms of the day, while International Superstar Soccer - the precursor to Pro Evolution Soccer - arrived in Japan on the Super Nintendo in 1994.

Since then they've spawned around 36 titles between them and succeeded in dividing opinion on just which was the better all-round football game, with - historically - a sense that while the FIFA games were well-finished in terms of presentation and licenses, the Pro Evo titles were where the real football fans spent their money.

That said, review scores have mostly been pretty close. Going back to late 2004, Eurogamer's evaluation of FIFA 05 was a solid 8/10, while Pro Evolution Soccer 4 was 9/10. EA's franchise dipped to a 7/10 the following year, while Konami's game - crucially the last 'ex-gen-only' title grabbed another 9/10.

Then a funny thing happened - Microsoft released the Xbox 360 and the race was on to put out football games in high definition, and utilising the new improved online functionality that the console brought with it.

If we ignore the aberration of FIFA 06: Road to the World Cup - and my. how we'd like to forget with its 2/10 score - for the next two years both franchises tied on 8/10 reviews. But last year, Pro Evolution Soccer 2009 fell to a 7/10 versus FIFA 09's 8/10 - and this year the tables turned completely as Pro Evo scored another 7/10, but FIFA 10 rose to a 9/10 rating.

While it's possible to point to Konami's struggle to fully get to grips with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, on the other hand EA has actually improved its act... something which hasn't harmed unit sales, either.

Reinventing the Ball

According to Peter Moore, EA Sports president, the changeover is the result of a long-term series reinvention plan that dates back to before his time, but had a firm focus on the new consoles coming to market.

"We're obviously very pleased with the critical and commercial success we're enjoying right now with FIFA 10," he told GamesIndustry.biz. "Well before I arrived to EA, there was a commitment made to reinvest in this franchise from both a development and marketing perspective.

"The team began the long process of rewriting the core gameplay engine with the switch to this generation of consoles, and our developers have been fully focused on innovating, tuning and polishing ever since.

"The combination of a great game and our renewed focus on speaking directly with fans - engaging them in the development process and listening to their feedback - has created the perfect storm for us. Bottom line - we've made the right bets and we've got an extremely talented team who have worked their butts off to get us to this spot."

It's difficult to argue that the approach hasn't paid off, and talk to the current FIFA team in Montreal and they'll often repeat words such as "simulation" and "real" - indicative of the four key themes they work around today.

"We have a number of sets of what we call pillars," explains the game's producer, David Rutter. "Gameplay, authenticity, approachability and competition are the ones we use a lot on the team. But what ends up within them are filtered by three important criteria.

"Refining - what needs to be made better; responding - what our fans are asking for or telling us needs to be improved; and finally innovating - what our next leap is, and where. Each filter needs to contribute specifically to the improvement of the game, rather than being purely a back of the box marketing gimmick. We've gotten very good at that over the last three or four years."

He goes on to underline Moore's point about reinvention, and why taking the long term view several years ago is what's helped the publisher to reap rewards now - a videogame proof of the old adage about never taking success for granted, perhaps.

"It's been a revolution in its own way. We took the decision as a studio to totally rewrite our gameplay as we moved onto the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The emphasis was to build a brilliant gameplay engine - from the ground up, with extendible systems supporting the fundamentals of football.

"Basically a true simulation, that was unpredictable when it should be, didn't break the laws of physics, but still eminently playable. And, as I say, extendible. We're at a point with FIFA 10 where we could do some revolutionary things - like our 360-degree dribbling - but that came about because we'd evolved the systems around it to a level that allowed us to do that.

A Fine Line

Of course, stray too far into the realms of reality and the fun can ebb away - a mistake that Eurogamer editor Tom Bramwell noted the team hasn't made: "Despite its love of simulation, FIFA 10 is also sensible about where to draw the line, continuing to ignore handballs, inadvertent back-passes and other things for which the player can't be held responsible," he wrote.

"We look at real football," adds Rutter, "and take a huge amount of influence from that. Our Set Piece Creator this year happened because we looked at the sorts of free kicks that happen in the real world, and our system couldn't support it. So we developed a tool, that became a feature, allowing the variety, unpredictability and excitement of real free kicks.

"Pretty much everything we put into the game comes about from what we see, read and hear about real football, which is why we're such a great game."

But while he's confident on the quality of his own game, he's also not about to put the boot in to the Old Enemy - no doubt taking note of the same old adage about success.

"I've been a massive PES fan since the original PlayStation. Indeed I played it almost exclusively until FIFA 08. With that FIFA title it was clear that what we were up to at EA Canada was to re-envision what a FIFA game was. It was about providing the undisputed number one gameplay experience, the number one authentic simulation of the sport - which includes licenses, player likenesses, and so on - and the very best competitive experience, be that against CPU, human or online.

"I think PES is a good game, that's reflected in its reviews. I don't think anyone thought EA would be able to make such huge strides in football game quality. I'm glad our team continues to prove that we can."

Clearly the main objective of producing the best football game in the business has, for now, been achieved - but the work continues and it's unlikely that as one of the key sellers in EA's Riccitiello era FIFA will be allowed to rest on its laurels.

And Reinventing the Wheel?

But what does that mean for other franchises within the publisher? A lot has been said about the condition of the previously key Need for Speed series, with a different approach now being taken to try to put the franchise back at the front of gamers' minds.

It's too early to speculate on the success of that approach after just one release - Shift, which scored 7/10 and seemed to struggle a little bit in terms of establishing a consistent driving style within itself - but using the template for evolution that FIFA's laid down is very much on the cards according to Keith Munro, VP of global marketing.

"As with any long-standing brand, innovation is critical to keep consumers engaged and excited about Need for Speed," he told GamesIndustry.biz. "Launching a game every year in this genre is unheard of, let alone keeping it fresh and at quality.

"So we approach this by asking consumers what they want most - and we can see that while nearly all racing gamers enjoy the action driving experiences from games like Most Wanted and Undercover, there are those that prefer more authentic-simulation racers or over-the-top arcade racing.

"Recognising this, Need for Speed is making games that are tailored to the specific racing tastes of each gamer. For example, Shift is an edgy, stylish, visceral authentic racer whereas the upcoming Nitro marks our first arcade foray and the first time we've built a Need for Speed game exclusively for the Nintendo platforms."

Like the FIFA story of recent years it could take some time before Need for Speed becomes the industry standard racer - partly because there's also a lot of high quality competition out there, with the likes of Forza, Gran Turismo and GRiD - but it'll be interesting to watch.

One thing is certain - if genuine quality is the new standard of judging success for games within pbulishers like EA, rather than the more traditional brand potential and unit sales bottom line, that can only be a good thing for consumers.

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