Can you feel it? That's excitement brewing in your belly. That's the irrational notion that, somehow, this time, England may actually win the World Cup. Well, if Rooney's fit, and Messi and Ronaldo are injured, and Brazil fail to turn up, and Spain forget how to pass and move. Hmm. It's not such a sure thing after all. Oh well, we'll have to make do with a virtual victory on EA Sports 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa, due out in April. At a packed preview event at Stamford Bridge - the home of the next Premier League champions - EA took the lid off the game, impressions of which you can find here, and line producer Simon Humber sat down with us for a chat on the game every football fan will be playing this summer.
Q. Tell us about the team behind the game and how it differs from the team behind the FIFA games.
Simon Humber: It's both the same and it's different. Gameplay is the same. There's a guy called Gary Patterson, who is the creative director for the FIFA products; he runs the gameplay team. That group of people produce gameplay, whether it is for FIFA 10, or for World Cup, or any other next-gen products. Then there's the core team. The core team puts together the front end menus, the game modes, the rendering, the presentation, the audio etc. That's different for each product. Dave Rutter's got his FIFA team over here. I've got my World Cup team over here. And then we both share the gameplay resources.
Q: Are you under the same pressure from Peter Moore to get a 90 average review score as Rutter was for FIFA 10?
SH: [Laughs] The thing is, for some reason the event titles always Metacritic lower than the FIFA titles. You read reviews and they talk about the fact that the game isn't as deep as the FIFA game. I've asked people questions about that. Depth seems to mean number of teams, to a lot of people. They look at FIFA, which has got five hundred and something teams. They look at Euro, which has got 53 teams because that's all there is in Europe; you can't do anything else. For World Cup, back in 2006 we had 124. This time around we knew if people are going to equate number of teams with depth, we've got to get everyone we're allowed to put into the game, into the game. FIFA have got 208 member nations. Nine of them are not eligible for this product because four of them didn't enter and five were thrown out because they weren't able to arrange their first match or something bizarre like that. So FIFA wouldn't let us include those. But all the other 199 are there. So if you really fancy the challenge of winning the World Cup with Vanuatu, you can qualify from Oceania, stop New Zealand getting there, and get there with Vanuatu instead.
Q: So, really, you are under a similar pressure to make a game that matches FIFA 10.
SH: Absolutely. We're not in the business of churning out rubbish. Every product we release needs to be an improvement on the previous one. That's how we keep each other on our toes. Both David's team and my team are trying to outdo each other all of the time. Plus we're looking at PES, wondering when they're going to come back strong, because surely they will do; they're not going to give up that market space so easily.
Q: Describe the conversations you have with Peter Moore when discussing this game.
SH: I say 'Peter, we're going to make this the most authentic [laughs], realistic, visually epic game you've ever seen in your life, featuring every team possibly available to us. Do you buy into that, Peter? We're going to have the whole tournament online!'.
Generally what happens is, we don't see Peter day to day. He's down in Redwood Shores or up in Vancouver. He'll come up six or seven times a year, sit down with us, we'll go through our product plans, our design reviews for products, say what we're looking to put into the product, what we're looking to achieve with the product, and we sit there, mull it over and he gives us the approval or not. But we're pretty autonomous as well. The football group's done a great job over the last few years. Our products have become very successful. So it's not as if we need to be looked over all of the time. We know what we're doing. We've got a great group of people up there.
Q: Do you have wagers with Rutter on the review score average?
SH: On World Cup we haven't got that yet. FIFA they had a sweepstakes, so everyone could enter and they had to give a predicted Metacritic score.
Q: So if World Cup's average review score is higher than FIFA 10's, you won't get anything, or there's no forfeit?
SH: If we average a higher Metacritic than FIFA 10 I'd be prepared to do many different things. So feel free to contribute towards that if you like!
Q: Some have already begun asking why World Cup isn't FIFA 10 downloadable content. What do you say to that? Why shouldn't it be FIFA 10 DLC?
SH: Firstly, DLC is limited in terms of how big it can be. If we eject the disc from a 360 over there and look at it, it's a DVDs worth of data. DLC isn't set up for that at the moment. That's the first point. Secondly, this is the world's biggest sporting event. It deserves its own platform. It's only once every four years. A great many people want a World Cup game. They want something totally unique. If you were just playing the World Cup using what FIFA 10 has for presentation for stadiums etc, it wouldn't be the World Cup. We want to produce the de facto authentic tournament experience so that when you're watching games this summer and you're playing the game you feel that connection. Maybe you want to play before the game, maybe sneak in a game at half time if you can't be bothered to listen to Hansen and Lineker, and then play it afterwards. It's a big social occasion as well. Groups of people get together to watch matches, play in game modes together, just playing co-op kick off matches, co-op online matches.
Q: By virtue of iteration, it will be a better game than FIFA 10, won't it?
SH: Absolutely. This is it. We don't stop investing in gameplay for the World Cup product, or for the Euro product for that matter. We take the previous year's FIFA gameplay, add more features, refine, enhance, improve, and launch that product. Then the next FIFA product comes along, takes the stuff that's been done for World Cup and puts their own stuff on top. Gameplay is one long, continuous thread.
Q: We've played a number of matches. It feels perhaps more grounded, maybe even a touch slower. Is that just us?
SH: No, it's fascinating the comments I'm getting back. I've had faster, weightier.
Q: We'd agree with weightier.
SH: What does weightier mean to you, though?
Q: That the players feel more attached on the pitch, almost as if they carry more physical presence. Maybe that's what made us think the game is slower, even if it isn't.
SH: Well game speed is identical to FIFA 10. What has changed is responsiveness via momentum. I mentioned during the presentation the change to chesting on through passes; so players preserve their momentum on their chest and carry on. There are other examples of that in the game. So when the guy said to me this morning he thought it was faster, I interpreted that as meaning that he found it more fluid; he wasn't being stuck in certain situations and therefore the game felt faster for him.
There are other changes there. One frustration with FIFA 10 was when you were defending crosses, you would be tapping the clearance button, and sometimes your defender would decide he's going to chest the ball, and then he'd take a touch in the air, and then he'd take another touch in the air, and turn around and he wouldn't clear it; an attacker would come and take the ball. We've been attempting to fix that as well, just to make the game feel more responsive.
Q: You mentioned the goalkeeper chip shot farce has been fixed. FIFA 10 wasn't your game, but what happened there?
SH: Sometimes you get so close to a product you can't see the wood for the trees, especially when the pressure's building, you're getting close to the final date, and maybe things get missed like that.
Q: What are some of the more standout gameplay changes you've made?
SH: Can I grab a list? [Leaves to grab a list] [Returns with a list] I'll give you a privileged couple of points. One that was a major frustration for me was timing out on corners and free kicks. You'd get a corner, the girlfriend would stick her head around the corner and say, 'blah blah blah blah - do that', and you'd say 'yeah all right, I'll be up later, give me five minutes'. You'd turn around and the corner's been taken. We got rid of those time outs, so you take it in your own time now. There's a trapping issue in FIFA 10 as well. Sometimes the player would trap the ball too far, and also be left in a stunned state, so he couldn't actually move off to go and retrieve the ball any more. That's been fixed. I'll give you one more. Oh yeah, that's a nice one. Goalkeepers now have the ability to branch their saves. If you think of when a shot's deflected, it was going into the left corner, but is deflected into the right corner. Now we've got the ability to change the goalkeeper to flail his arm out, or flail a leg out, to try and stop a ball that's going at a different trajectory level.
Q: What can you tell me about Manager Mode? Will there be a Manager Mode in this game?
SH: The Manager Mode that you know from FIFA isn't in the World Cup title. I guess our equivalent is the offline World Cup mode, where essentially you are the manager of a team. There are a couple of deeper aspects we've made to that mode. Previously in tournament games there's never been any incentive to change the makeup of the team. You just select the best players, keep playing, keep playing, keep playing, and go win the World Cup. This time round we've added in injuries that are caused from out of match situations. Maybe in training or for their club, the player gets injured, so then when you're about to play another match it comes up: you can't use Jermain Defoe in this match; he's out. Or you can't use Tom Huddlestone - not that that's going to worry anyone - he's out of this particular game.
Then there's form, as well. We track the ratings the players are getting in the game and turn that into a form figure. It starts at 75. As it rises higher it means they will play better than the gameplay engine. If they go below 75 they start to play worse than the gameplay engine. You throw in the injuries - so maybe you can't play Wayne Rooney for four matches because he's got a bad injury - you bring in Jermain Defoe and he plays really well, scores goals and gets a high match rating. By the time Rooney comes back, Defoe's form is 85. Do you bring Rooney back at that point or do you keep going with Defoe? We've tried to throw in a few little devices to make the mode a bit deeper, give people choices, and maybe you end up with a different England team each time you play it.
Q: We know you and David Rutter keep an eye on PES. Are you surprised by its inability to improve significantly on previous versions?
SH: The first time they came out with a bad version of PES was a big surprise to us. We figured they'd hit next-gen running. We figured they'd invest, as we were investing. Then year two came along, and we thought, okay, this year must be the year they're going to hit us with their brand new next-gen engine, and nothing. Now year three came along and it's improved, but it's essentially still the same game. So we're always expecting them to come back strong with a brand new product at some time. We're continuing to invest in our product. We're looking to the future as well, wondering what the future of football gaming means for us, and the next-platform change. Meanwhile, we're just continuing to invest in our engine, making it as good as possible. We're proud to have the best game at the moment, and long may it continue.
EA Sports 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa is due out for the Xbox 360, PS3, Wii and PSP on April 30.