FIFA, inevitably, is back, and this time, fuelled by strong reviews, impressive sales and a less than impressive effort from its 'competitor', the 09 edition is looking like the best effort yet. At a recent hands-on press event for the game in EA's Guildford HQ, we sat down with David Rutter, line producer for the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game, to get the low down on the new gameplay features, find out why that age old PES versus FIFA debate is a good one and why the PS3 version of this year's game will be up to scratch.
David Rutter: How's it going? Did you get a chance to play the game?
VideoGamer.com: I did, yeah, all of the versions.
DR: How did it go? Did you enjoy them?
VideoGamer.com: I did, yeah. I really like the added weight, it feels like the players have an affect on other players in the air and on the ground. I like the players calling for the ball as well. More than anything it's a visual aid to when you should be playing through balls. It catches your attention.
DR: They're generally doing them when they know you should be doing it as well. It's one of our attempts to try and improve the approachability, accessibility, usability, whatever you want to call it, of the game. To try and give more user feedback to guys so they know when they should be doing stuff.
VideoGamer.com: And it also looks very realistic.
DR: We had some really cool ones in there but we had to take some of them out.
VideoGamer.com: Oh yeah, like what?
DR: We had some actions that could potentially get us flagged out by Sony. (Makes silly football prayer gesture with hands) believe it or not.
VideoGamer.com: How odd.
DR: I know. You're not allowed to do it. But there you go. It would have changed our rating.
DR: I know.
VideoGamer.com: Fair enough. I guess with a game that comes out every year and a game that pretty much always sells very well. How do you determine success? How do you know when you're doing a good job?
DR: There's three things. One of which is how many games you sell. The other one is what your Metacritic says...
VideoGamer.com: You don't listen to that do you?
DR: Yeah! Big time! And lastly the big thing for us, or for the guys on the dev team, let's say the marketing and publishing people, is the feedback we're getting from people. That's kind of the stuff we're interested in hearing, what people actually think of the game. People say you shouldn't believe your press. I think for people who spend whatever amount of money it costs to buy FIFA they might not have a right to tell us exactly what they say but I believe they should and I encourage people to do it, definitely.
VideoGamer.com: So applying those three factors to the last game how did it do?
DR: It did very well. We saw a big increase in our quality ratings around the world. It sold a lot and a lot of people liked it. But not to the extent that we were going to sit on our butts and do nothing this year. One of the guys asked earlier with a yearly title that does so well do you not find it difficult to innovate, are you not in danger of putting people off? It was refreshing for me when I joined the team to discover there was this huge emphasis on gameplay and we were already communicating with people via a number of means to find out what people liked and what people didn't so we could try and do the best job we could with that. So that was one good thing. The other parts of it were the fact that if you think of how the game's innovated over the last few years, we're still continuing to do that gameplay wise with custom team tactics and then for game modes with Be A Pro and for online play with 10 vs 10. So to have the investment in just solid gameplay and then the investment in other things as well it's a nice team to be working with, it's great.
VideoGamer.com: The series has been going for a long time now and you have members of your team who have worked on it for a while now. Will the ideas ever dry up?
DR: I don't think that will ever happen. For starters the team's made up of footie fans from around the world. So everyone has a different taste and flavour for what a football game should be, so that's healthy. 18 nationalities are in the team, of which the vast majority are European, South Central American, Japanese, Korean and a very small proportion are actually North American bizarrely, for a North America studio. So everyone has a different taste and flavour for what we should be doing. And all of them are football game and football fans so there isn't anything else they want to be doing. And thankfully we've got a hugely vocal community, a very open press and a great deal of people who play the game and let us know what they think. Ultimately the ambition is to create the most accurate simulation of the sport that's also fun to pay. I think there's a number of different directions we can go in the future.
VideoGamer.com: I wanted to ask about the PS3 version. Last year some EA sports titles struggled on the PS3 in comparison with the 360 version. What did you think of the PS3 version of FIFA 08 and how is the PS3 version of 09 shaping up?
DR: We were cognisant of the fact that regardless of how well PlayStation was doing at that time, it was a new console and we were convinced it would be a success. We needed to make sure we were doing as much as we possibly could to support that. So we were 60 frames a second on both consoles, which is pretty rare whether it be in EA or around the world. We really made an effort to make sure we did it and it was a huge task to do, but we did it. This year we've done a heap of work to make sure that the actual visuals of the game are at least as good on PS3 as 360, to the extent we've had meetings with executives that have basically been fine tooth comb almost, a microscopic look at what's going on to make sure they are as good as each other and they are. There's no graphical features or level of rendering or anything else that's different between the consoles this year.
VideoGamer.com: Why is it a case that it is a job to get the PS3 version as good as the 360 considering the relative powers of the consoles?
DR: I think a lot of it is to do with the fact that when all the game teams around the world started work on console games they ended up making a 360 version before a PS3. So tools and technologies were there to support 360 in advance of PS3, and the investment required to do both is obviously an up front cost, and it takes a little while to catch up.
VideoGamer.com: And catching up now then?
DR: Yeah. As far as we're concerned we're there. There is parity as it's called between 360 and PS3 for us. We're chuffed about that.
VideoGamer.com: How is the online experience improved this year?
DR: We were very happy with our 360 and PS3 online football experience last year. We had I believe the best online football video game experience you can get by miles and we're continuing to do that this year. So not only have we got great head to head play we've got great team play. This year we'll have 10 versus 10, which is a hugely big deal for us. Our matchmaking services on both consoles are going to be vastly improved by the work that EA have been doing rather than the game team to make sure we're matching up correctly with people around the world, based on their experience level, where they are in the world, right the way through to their did not complete percentages of games. We had a lot of people pulling their network cables out on ranked matches to get away with it.
VideoGamer.com: People cheating...
DR: You can call it cheating I might call it a bad internet connection! So we got a lot of feedback from our online players saying that so we fixed it. What you can do now is it will flag up if someone did not finish. You can actually select for people who always finish from 0 to 100% to stop cheating.
VideoGamer.com: So you can't make them suffer a loss because it might be a genuine problem.
DR: Yes. So if they fall off within a certain time frame they lose. We can't tell the difference between whether they're pulling their network cable or their router switched off or there was a power cut. It's difficult to tell if someone's cheating or not in that respect. But we can tell you whether or not they finish their games or not. It's fairer.
VideoGamer.com: Were you surprised by PES last year?
DR: In what way?
VideoGamer.com: The online play is pretty disappointing, for a game that usually has high scores it seemed like quite a shock to us.
DR: Two parts of it surprised me. Some of the tongue lashings it got, I think some of them were a little bit unfair. Similarly I think some of the fanboyness is unfair as well, for want of a better term. But what I will say is it's a great game and we expect Konami to come back extremely strongly every year regardless of whether it was a good year or a bad year. You shouldn't be underestimating what those guys are capable of because they've delivered some fantastic games in the past. What I will say though is the fact that as a guy and a game team who are working in an extremely competitive market there's nothing better than having a really strong competitor. Nothing is better than that because it's such a focusing driver for everyone to know that there's something out there that historically and even currently is either as good or better than your game. It's a great way of keeping yourself motivated. My wife doesn't get it though!
VideoGamer.com: Do we make too much of the perceived PES versus FIFA rivalry? Do you have to like one and hate the other?
DR: I don't know how old you are, I'm not going to ask you for fear of offence...
VideoGamer.com: I'm 27.
DR: Jesus. I remember 27. Anyway, so, what was the first console you had?
VideoGamer.com: A NES.
DR: OK, so you didn't fancy a Master System?
VideoGamer.com: No, but I didn't really have a choice of both at the time. Now I'm older and have some money I can get both.
DR: You would probably have both. But I guess that whole playground argument about everything from Eastenders versus Coronation Street, Home and Away versus Neighbours, Oasis versus Blur, Coke versus Pepsi, you won't be able to publish any of this because of all the brand names I'm using! I don't know, bloody Galaxy versus Dairy Milk...
VideoGamer.com: (Laughs) That's a good one I've never heard of that one before.
DR: I went through a phase of loving Galaxy. I couldn't stop eating it.
VideoGamer.com: Did that mean you hated Dairy Milk?
DR: (Pause). If push came to shove, yeah. Do you know what I mean?
VideoGamer.com: Did you talk about it online in a forum?
DR: No. I guess Arsenal versus Spurs. England versus Germany. You will always have people, particularly I guess young males, who will pin a badge on themselves and be one thing or the other. Rightfully or wrongfully a lot of people love PES, rightfully or wrongfully a lot of people love FIFA. What I want to be able to do is provide a gaming experience, and the team want to do the same thing, that is unparalleled. That the Cadbury is so much better than the Galaxy that why would you even bother? It's a comedy interview in the end.
VideoGamer.com: No it's good! Sometimes we do these things and it must sound like a broken record from your point of view.
DR: Not really. I can talk till the cows come home about the key improvements in the gameplay, custom team tactics, Be A Pro Seasons and 10 versus 10.
VideoGamer.com: I guess the thing with FIFA is that it's been going for so long and it seems like it's never going to end. Do you have exclusive rights to the FIFA license for X amount of years or is it a contract that's re-evaluated regularly? Is it an EA game that could potentially last forever?
DR: I don't see a point where there wont be a FIFA football video game. I can't imagine why there wouldn't be unless there's a new Cadbury versus Galaxy thing where FIFA becomes irrelevant and then you go that route. For us we want to be the most authentic football video game out there. That's one of our mantras. The game team wants it to be the best playing, and the online team wants it to be the best playing online. Everyone has this ambition to be the best and that's why we're all doing this for a living as much as the art and craft of what we do. So from a branding and licensing and a legal stand point of course you want to own the rights to absolutely every football team in the world and every stadium and every kit and every this and every that, because for the one person who supports that team they want to experience absolute authenticity. Regardless whether it's right or wrong you need to license that stuff otherwise you get into a great deal of trouble. Long term we'll continue trying to do that because I think that's what people want.
VideoGamer.com: OK David thanks for your time.
FIFA 09 is due out for Xbox 360, PS3 and PS2 this Autumn.