FIFA 15: The Future of Football is Emotion (And Shoulders)

By Jeff Poe on at

By the time you read this, EA will have gone out on stage at E3 and told you all about their exciting new sports games. "Sports!" they'll cry. People will feign interest. "Look how shiny FIFA 15 is!" they'll add, before mumbling something about physics and facial animation then moving on to things people care more about, usually involving shooting (guns, not footballs).

But the problem is, I've played FIFA 15 on Xbox One and PS4 (they didn't have the PC version available, even though this year it's going to be on-par with the console versions) - so I know it's about more than just ignoring a man in a suit on stage when he talks about another version of a yearly release.

See, FIFA 15 is about emotion. It's about responsiveness. It's about shoulders.

No, really - there genuinely was a part of the presentation - given every year when a FIFA game is shown off for the first time to the press - where an EA Sports producer showed us a detailed shoulder comparison between last year's and this year's games. I wish I was making it up.

"People might say ‘hey, it’s just a change of shoulders’.  In visuals it makes a huge difference"

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Honestly - here's a quote from Sebastian Enrique, lead producer on FIFA 15 on PS4, Xbox One and PC: " People might say ‘hey, it’s just a change of shoulders’.  In visuals it makes a huge difference.

You combine all these elements and you’ve got a game where, when you compare an image from real life with a screenshot from the game and you’re like ‘... wow’."

What he was getting at was the fact that the players look more human, less sloped. Their skeletons and musculature is more detailed and acts more like real skeletons and muscles do, rather than the weird, warped, sloped-shouldered non-humans of FIFA 14.

But I digress, because FIFA 15 is about other things too, as mentioned, and there are changes to the core game that mix up the experience... if only a bit. Is it enough to declare this, once again, the best football game ever made? I don't know. But I played five matches, and they all felt good to me.

Responsiveness: it's key to the experience

Responsiveness is something Enrique kept telling me about, but it was worth listening to him, even when he got into the really detailed animation-based stuff. Basically players are capable of taking much smaller steps this year, meaning their turning circles are more like those of footballers and not akin to a fat tank. This matters.

"We decided to focus 100% on making the game super-responsive," Enrique told me in his thick Argentine accent, "But it’s not just True Player Motion 2.0 – to make a game truly responsive you have to work on many things. One of them is adding tons of different running cycles in the step-based locomotion systems, with more agile, faster animations."

More agile animations translates to more agile players, basically. What that means is when you want them to turn quickly, they will. FIFA 14 already felt a mite sluggish on PS4 and Xbox One - after playing FIFA 15 it feels positively slow.

As well as the step-based locomotion - apologies for the buzzword-talk there - there are other physics-based changes that aim to mix up FIFA 15 and make it... well, more real. Deflections are one.

"You have more animations for passing, more animations for shooting and it all comes together to produce a super-responsive experience"

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In previous games, a deflection meant 'oh the ball has bounced down off a defender and away from goal'. In FIFA 15 they mean 'oh holy crap I don't know where that's going because it's based on actual ball/contact physics and isn't just a canned reaction'. It is, in a case of using a word I never expected to use to describe a football game, emergent.

Enrique is proud of these elements: "Everything is added together – you have more animations for passing, more animations for shooting and it all comes together to produce a super-responsive experience."

So deflections and turning circles. Anything else? Well, AI has been updated, as always. It's another bit that sounds pretty insignificant, but one that could have huge ramifications on the game.

"We’re making the game much more human," Enrique said, trying his best not to invoke any terror about the machines taking over. "In terms of your teammates, you want them to be smarter because then you get better passes, better shooting opportunities, better defending, they position themselves better, they support the context of the match better.

"In terms of the opponent, you want a game that keeps surprising you – in the good way – after the hundredth game. Why people play so much online is because they have different experiences game after game, and by making the AI much more human, you start to see those experiences in single-player."

'More human?' So could FIFA 15 pass the Turing Test?

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But what does 'more human' mean? Well it means the AI actually reacts to the context of a match, rather than always playing in the same way from minute one to minute 90. "It’s not just that if the AI is losing in the 85th minute it will send everyone up front – it’s much more contextual, a much more discreet system of really complex logic," Enrique added.

"It’s all emergent behaviour and you can start seeing, for example, how defenders or strikers controlled by the AI start taking more risks, or timewasting, or how your teammates get more aggressive or put more pressure on the opposition. You can control the tactics yourself, but you put all these pieces together and you have a game that really feels fantastic – it’s much more fun to play, as an end result."

So there's all this positivity and hype around FIFA 15, to the point that it shows FIFA 14 up somewhat. That still is one of the highest-rated games on the PS4 and Xbox One, but it's already looking dated and limited next to its successor.

With that in mind, we put it to Enrique that FIFA 14 was merely a test run on the new consoles, and that FIFA 15 would be where the real game comes out to play. It may (not) surprise you to hear he didn't agree.

"The first year, obviously, you want to build the best game you can – I think we did that"

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"It’s not that the first year is just setting up the stage," he said, "The first year, obviously, you want to build the best game you can – I think we did that. But we’re very ambitious guys, so the second year we want to do more and better. Not just because we want to make a better game – we love football and we love the game, but it’s not just about making the best sports title: it’s about making the best game of the year."

One of the more seemingly superficial elements EA Sports is pushing in FIFA 15 is that of 'emotion'. Players getting angry or elated, crowds going wild or being sullen, a striker barracking his midfielder for a selfish, wasteful shot - elements like that which you see in real matches, that can all add to the overall experience, but ones that don't have a giant impact on what you're actually playing.

"The emotional intensity, for me, is continuing to bring that passion of the sport – what you feel, what emotions you feel when you see your team, when you’re in the stadium... you go through a variety of emotions," Enrique told me, possibly while not breaking eye contact, "For me, bringing that passion and emotion to the game is a Gen 4 [PS4 and Xbox One] experience – when you feel it you are immersed in such a way that you just want to keep playing it.

"Imagine you’re a Liverpool fan and you see, in the right moment, at the right time, You’ll Never Walk Alone – you get goosebumps. We want things like that in the game."

So every team will have its own YNWA moment? Rotherham United fans will serenade defeated Leyton Orient fans with a renditions of 'New York, New York'?

"Are we going to create signature moments like this for all of the 500-plus teams in the game? No, to tell you the truth. We can’t. But it’s something we’re going to start here and hopefully continue building in the future."

Damn.

It's a funny old game. Also sad, happy, enraging and all of the emotions

Even with this crushing disappointment, Enrique soldiered on: "Regardless what your particular emotions are, you also have different attitudes towards different people. This happens in every team, every week – players having different emotional states, having different reactions to opponents and teammates. We wanted to capture that, so you now you see the players having all their different reactions.

"All these things are visual things, you could say they don’t affect gameplay, but they really support that atmosphere, that immersion, that emotion of the sport."

It's something that's hard to really see in action after only a few games, but there is definitely the potential there for FIFA 15 to shake things up at the sort of level you haven't really seen before - the fire and determination of a committed player overcoming the odds, the despondency of the defender who has lost his team the cup final with an own goal - it all feeds in to the overall experience.

Regardless of all that, there's something we need to talk about. The most important part of FIFA 15's visual upgrades is the way the pitch actually deforms as players run over it. It reacts to their footsteps, it isn't just a canned texture change. So we had to ask: will we be able to draw things on the pitch with our players?

The thing that matters most in FIFA 15: drawing on the pitch

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"Try it. It depends, you should try it with lots of controllers," Enrique chuckled, "It’s something that was funny to watch on a free kick, for example, when we were leaving the console running overnight and coming back to see the players making the same movements over and over had almost dug a hole in the pitch. It was amazing."

Best feature of the game? I would say yes, but it felt a bit overdone. Grass gets roughed up through a real world match, sure, but by the end of our FIFA 15 games it was looking like the Somme circa 1916. Though that's something that may be dialled down by the time the game is finished - this was a 50% complete version, after all.

It's another year, it's another FIFA game, and it's another occasion where I've felt I've played a few matches on a good game and spoken to a person who is honestly trying to make something that people will enjoy.

But it is just another FIFA game. And the fact part of the presentation was about Gareth Bale's shoulders shows you: they're running out of big changes to make. And I'm running out of reasons to be excited about iterative changes and slight refinements.

I'll clearly still play it to death though. Let's see what you've got this year, PES.