FIFA 10 did very well for itself, selling roughly seventy zillion copies and averaging all kinds of critical acclaim. Kicking a virtual football into the back of the net has never been so fun - or lavishly produced, for that matter. Of course, the wheel of time refuses to stop turning, so the team at EA Canada must step up and produce a worthy sequel. Such is the way of things.
But the studio isn't resting on its current run of success: at a recent preview event in EA's Guildford office, line producer David Rutter took the time to show a screenshot detailing the team's bugs and feature tracking software - and just how much work was going into quashing the problems. It's easy to picture Rutter as a perfectionist, obsessing over what the team can do to get perfect 10 review scores instead of being happy with solid 9s.
There's even a graph, so you know he's serious. They've mapped the gameplay experience of FIFA 10 across the X axis, and plopped the quality on the Y: FIFA 10 maintains a steady 9 and occasionally dips into the 8's, but the projected graph for FIFA 11 stays on the same 9 but spikes into the 10s. It's intended as a bit of a joke, but the underlying message is deadly serious: EA wants FIFA 11 to be the best football game of all time.
But what's new? If you're expecting grand theatrics, the feature list may disappoint. Rutter is adamant to focus the majority of the team's efforts on the core fundamentals of the game. The idea, he says, is to "actually spend time understanding the subject matter, understanding the people who play the game, and giving them fresh, new, good stuff that matters ... instead of coming up with inappropriate marketing gimmicks which just look good on the back of the box and are, you know, pointless."
What about the new Personality Plus feature, then? The name sounds like something that would be at home in even the most desperate of the barrel-scraping football franchises. It's a bit of a misnomer, though, and in reality the system is more of a suite of features, a "holistic umbrella of features" according to Rutter, which attributes an extensive set of visual attributes and specific animations to each player. There are now three times as many body shapes and sizes than in FIFA 10, for instance, and the technology has allowed EA Canada to expertly capture John Terry's distinctive gormless expression. Success.
Personality Plus is more than skin deep, though, as it also overhauls the way each player reacts on the pitch. By showing a demonstration of someone taking a shot on target while the system is taken to its extremes, it's easily possible to see how Personality Plus affects player performance: it's easy to score when on maximum, nearly impossible to score when on minimum. Hardly different from what FIFA has done in the past, you might (rightly) think, but the system intends to be nuanced instead of revolutionary.
If you balance Personality Plus' range of attributes out and apply it across an entire team, for instance, you'll find each player looking and controlling ever-so-slightly differently in a way unseen with previous FIFA games.
Rutter can't talk for long before coming back to one thing, though: cheap chip shots, which are still a clear thorn in the side of the development team, not to mention anyone who ever tried to take FIFA 09 for a spin online. FIFA 10 made some clear improvements in this regard, but the team still aren't happy with the current system. Their efforts with FIFA 11 appear positive in this 80 per cent complete build: chip shots seem much, much harder to do now, and feel far less cheap when they actually do go in.
Chest traps have also been tweaked, now letting you chest the ball in the direction you want to go rather than the altogether more complicated method of having to do mid-air touches after a chest to change direction. It feels more natural to play, and looks more authentic on the pitch.
And now there's also real, actual 360-degree player control. Wasn't that in FIFA 10? Yes and no, apparently. Yes in that it was, no in that it wasn't as 360-degree as they'd have liked. Which it is now, by the way, having been switched from lateral to full 360 physical interaction. What that means, in case you don't speak developer, is that you can now shield and jostle from behind and fight for possession from every angle. So it's more like football, basically.
With the general bevy of refinements comes a need to rewrite the AI to compensate and incorporate these subtle changes, tweaking the system so the CPU opponents can recognise and react to sophisticated patterns of play. It also seems like the AI is far more likely to deploy skill moves, generally savvy levels of play and, while the lifeblood of FIFA is in playing another human opponent, it should be more than enough to keep most players on their toes.
A competent AI will certainly help FIFA 11's rewritten Career mode, which fills a gap EA Canada has made from scrapping FIFA 10's Be a Pro and Manager modes. Most fans were happy with the career modes in FIFA 10, Rutter stressed, but the development team are adamant to silence the vocal minority, so have developed an entirely new simulation engine for Career mode's behind-the-scenes technical doohickery.
When you do take on other human players, though, there's now the option to import and assign music to specific in-game events - notably crowd chants. This will only work locally (for obvious bandwidth and human decency issues) but will undoubtedly provide all kinds of opportunity for crafty thinkers.
The massive success of FIFA 10 means the series is already riding on an all-time high, and EA is clever enough to know not to fix what certainly isn't broke. There are no sweeping, all-encompassing changes in FIFA 11, then, but instead a series of comprehensive tweaks designed to give the series that extra step, hopefully turning it from flavour of the season into an all-time champion.