It’s a tough task being asked to reinvent the wheel, much less having to do so annually for the past 20 years. Where will the innovation come from? What new additions can possibly be made? Surely you can’t convince consumers to buy each iteration year after year? Yet this is exactly the seemingly impossible task that the team at EA Canada have managed to pull off for quite some time now.
As the latest entry into what is – by some margin – the greatest selling sports series of all time, FIFA 14 was released like clockwork to yet more rave reviews by critics and fans in September this year. Perhaps the bigger story, however, is how it will stack up to the competition when EA unleashes its multitude of sporting franchises on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
We sat down with long-time producer of the FIFA series Peter Trenouth at a preview event to find out how EA Canada plan to raise the bar just that much higher.
It’s no secret that when EA debuted what it referred to as its ‘Gen 3’ titles back in 2006 for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, fans felt a little hard done. Last generation’s platform débuts were not only priced around twice that of its PS2 and Xbox counterparts, but they also featured much less in the way of actual content.
Trenouth was the first to admit that the Gen 3 launch was a rocky one, one which was reciprocated by media and fans, whom as he says, let them know. “That was one of the things we set out to do this year, all of the key modes that we know users play and expect in Gen 4 are going to be there. FIFA Ultimate Team, Career Mode, Match Day, Kick-Off, Online Seasons — all those modes that have made Gen 3 the success it is are all on Gen 4. All the teams, all the leagues, all the stadiums… all of it.”
Maintaining these features was such a priority for the team, in fact, that Trenouth claims it would have been considered a ‘failure’ for them to have offered anything less.
Speaking on the transition from current generation hardware to the next, Trenouth explained that the team was excited by the prospect and were extremely confident of the position it was in, but conceded that it didn’t come without its own set of challenges. “Year one of a launch: a lot of unknowns, a lot of things you have to figure out on the fly. It requires us to be a lot more agile as a team of developers. What was a fire last week isn’t a fire this week, and there’s just a lot of unknowns, or things that are very difficult to plan for.”
With assurances that the features and quality of the Playstation 4 and Xbox One versions would be of the highest standard and any concerns assuaged, the next and most obvious talking point of next-gen FIFA 14 are the visuals, and rest assured, they’re gorgeous. Aside from running at full 1080p at 60 frames per second on both consoles, part of what makes next-gen FIFA so easy on the eye is EA’s brand new Ignite engine, the behemoth that will be powering all of its next-gen sports titles.
“What is the biggest strength of the Ignite engine? It’s a bunch of teams working together; it’s FIFA, it’s Madden, it’s UFC — it’s a bunch of teams working together and being able to bring the best of what we all do,” claimed Trenouth.
For starters, Ignite offers developers access to biomechanical physics, meaning avatars on-screen will be able to move far more realistically and smoothly than before, and thanks to the additional memory provided by next-gen consoles, there are going to be far more animations crammed in. “Now players actually have weight when they’re moving,” Trenouth said, “You can feel them planting their feet, feel the explosiveness professional athletes have when moving from a standstill to a sprint… that’s the sort of things Ignite allows us to do.”
The Ignite engine also brings the prospect of far more believable crowds. Studios have individual control over audience members, allowing them to not only create more unique looking crowds, but smarter crowds that will respond to events in the match more accurately than those in the current-gen, hopefully bumping the immersion factor up to the next level.
Perhaps most enticing of all, however, is the promise of enhanced artificial intelligence. EA claims that with Ignite, players can expect unparalleled instincts, awareness and unpredictability from their favourite athletes on a level unseen in sports video games until now. “For FIFA in particular,” Trenouth told us, “It’s going to allow the 11 defenders and 11 attackers to behave smarter and more authentically.” In an arena where developers are often critiqued for simply adding incremental features to their games year after year, the ‘Human Intelligence’ framework could prove to be the biggest boon of all for sports fans.
When questioned on whether the impressive Ignite technology could or would ever be applied to other EA franchise outside of sports, Trenouth explained, “Battlefield has the Frostbite engine that they’re very strong with, but the Ignite engine is tailored for sports. Sports have different needs compared to a shooter or an RPG, but sports is about how players move. Again, we have a bunch of different titles in the EA Sports family, and we’re able to leverage what we all do good, or what one group does better than the other, and being able to share that across lets us just deliver a better experience as a whole.”
And what of the future of the FIFA series itself? The World Game is now a linchpin of the games industry globally, and the looming Xbox and PlayStation juggernauts promise new heights for this franchise. We’ll leave it to Peter to have the final say on what fans can expect over the next 7 years or so of the upcoming console generation.
“I think you’re going to see a lot of growth in the online space in particular. In terms of gameplay, it’s just going to get more authentic; it’s going to be a lot of art imitating life. We want you to feel like you’re watching a real match, but you’re actually playing it, from the way that we present it, all the different cameras, the replays, commentary… [Next-generation hardware] just allows a lot of different opportunities and areas for us to explore. While it’s kind of early to predict what it’s going to look like, you’re just going to see games change for the better, for sure.”