FIFA 18: Talking Balls with Sam Rivera

By Rich Stanton on at

The biggest asset of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association over recent decades has been a relatively pure one. The beleaguered organisation's scandal-hit management, dubious stewardship of World Cup awards, and endless corruption claims mean FIFA is now something of a byword for cronyism and greed at the top levels of sport. But only in the real world. In the entertainment industry, FIFA means blockbuster — some would say the blockbuster. A licensed videogame series that, while having bumpy patches, has consistently improved and evolved to a tremendous degree, all the while making enormous profits which drive future entries. The FIFA games, the latest being FIFA 18, are a shining example of the AAA industry's power: big, beautiful, and ever-improving.

That's not to say the FIFA games don't have issues, but the accumulation of work over time means that the value each entry offers, and the quality of production, is first-class. Every way you can think of playing has been catered for, every feature you'd expect is there, and (unlike distant rival PES) all the players and kits are in there. The sheer scope of each game leads to a slight tension I've always found quite amusing, which is when you go to see the latest FIFA (an annual event, of course) and the EA developers have to slightly knock down the last one in order to emphasise just how good this next one is. After his presentation on FIFA 18, which naturally improves on FIFA 17 in a hundred areas, I ask producer Sam Rivera if he finds his pitch a little weird.

"Not really," laughs Rivera. "It might sound wrong but development is like... every year we’re just thinking of more and better ways. A lot of the features that we bring every year, this is how it works, are inspired by our users, fan feedback. We make the last version of the game look definitely not as good – don’t get me wrong, FIFA 17 was a record breaking game with over 22 million people, we're very happy with it, and if I go back to play it I will have a lot of fun. But FIFA 18 has even more because now we know what the frustrations are with FIFA 17, what’s wrong and how the game develops. When you compare it side to side in screenshots the visuals are much better in 18 than 17 – but that’s just the normal process of FIFA."

It's also a process that, unusually for this industry, has a fixed destination. FIFA is an iterative series, but it's also a football game. Fundamentally it will always be about simulating 22 people on a pitch, and a ball. There is a hard ceiling on exactly what you can add or improve.

"It’s always hard," laughs Silva, "because it's not like other games where we can say 'let’s create a new world and let’s change the mechanics and make this new rifle' or whatever. We always have the same objective. So the hardest part is to come back every year with a feature set that is going to impress people and going to make people go 'Oh wow I’m going to go with FIFA this year.' Believe me there’s a lot of people working for an entire year, and some even longer, in making sure that those new features look amazing. It’s a lot of smart people all around the world working together to come with improvements like the ones you see here, that allow us to get closer to our final goal."

Sam Rivera

What's the final goal for the FIFA games? "If you have a TV with a real life football and you have that side to side with FIFA and you cannot see the difference," says Rivera. "It looks the same, and when you play it the players move exactly the same and what you hear is exactly the same. That’s our final goal. FIFA 18's taking very big steps because of the motion technology system, because of the dribbling overhaul and many different things we have in gameplay as well as our second year of Frostbite which allows us to make the game look better."

That aim may have once seemed fanciful, but it was several years ago I first noticed how close both FIFA and PES were getting to creating an authentic-looking football experience. You'd notice if you really looked, of course, but when your eye was just glancing at the screen FIFA could almost be Sky Sports. And in fact sports broadcasters are now a big part of FIFA, with EA's developers using the same framing techniques and show formats as major elements in The Journey, the singleplayer campaign mode that was added with FIFA 17.

Some people were sneery about The Journey, failing to see the appeal its professional footballer fantasy has for FIFA's young audience. The comeback is a simply jaw-dropping stat. When we're talking AAA titles an average singleplayer campaign may be completed by only 5% of players, and often even less. Stats higher than that would be a source for celebration. Around a third of FIFA 17's players finished The Journey.

What the above trailer shows, in fact, is that the world of football loves FIFA. When FIFA 17 came out, you saw football players tweeting about getting their early copies — often bragging about it to mates who hadn't got hold of one yet. Managers and high-profile players are happy to do a quick spot for The Journey's trailer not because they're being paid, but because they either love FIFA themselves or recognise the game's importance to football in a wider sense. One of the aspects of modern FIFA that most impresses me is how much care and attention has been put into recreating the feel of football off the pitch, the way transfer rumours are reported, the voxpops you see outside stadiums, and the sense of theatre that can make someone kicking a ball seem like the most important thing in the world.

"Our goal as producers is we’re always looking at football and always trying to put the context of football in FIFA," says Silva. "This is a very good example I’ll give you — one of the new features we have is called Dramatic Moments, and people have asked me 'How do you create dramatic moments?' It's not just about spectacular stuff, forcing it to happen. Basically what we are doing is we are spending more time making sure that the football concepts and contexts that create variety in real life are also in FIFA and tuned in the same way.

"So my example – if you’re playing Ronaldo, he’s a very good shooter – should he hit the left top corner of the goal every single time he shoots? He’s not going to be able to do that — why not? Because there are different factors with each shot. He could be under pressure – maybe a guy is on his side trying to push him off balance when he tries to take the shot. Maybe the ball is too far away and he needs to stretch, or too close and then he cannot get proper contact. Maybe the ball is bouncing, maybe the ball has a spin, maybe he’s moving too fast instead of having the proper speed for the perfect shot, maybe he’s using his left foot instead of his right foot, maybe the weather conditions are bad... there are many factors that are going to prevent him from doing that perfect shot every time. So what we do in FIFA every year is try to understand those factors and tune them in a way so you can have that experience.

"Now it’s up to the user to create that situation, to get in that perfect spot for that shot, and this is where the bits combine. I have space for a set-up touch and can then run to the ball and hit a perfect shot, or perhaps I know Ronaldo’s right-footed so I need to dribble this way so that the ball ends up in the right position – all of this doesn’t mean every single shot is going to go in if it’s in a good context, but there will be more possibilities for that shot to go in with that good context than if I just press shoot whenever. Our aim is not just to have a fun game, no, it’s about translating the context, our concept is to bring real football into the videogame."

Another of FIFA 18's buzz phrases is 'humanising AI' but, before trying to tease out exactly what that means, I want to give another bit of context for FIFA's granular attention to detail. I went to see FIFA 18 at a press day. There were a few dozen other journalists there, a quick presentation at the start, then we all played the game. A former colleague had brought along his teenage son, and it quickly became obvious that the young sir knew more about FIFA than any of the professionals in the room. As he whipped us at the game, he'd make sharp observations about the tiniest changes. I played him and was lucky to escape with a 2-0 defeat (he hit the bar twice), and after scoring one of his goals he pointed out my defender's AI had gone a bit screwy and left a gap to run into. It's the kind of detail that, when you know a game intimately, is so obvious.

So yeah *cough* I conceded because of that. It's a problem that, in various forms, has plagued football games since their inception, and the real issue with it is not just the mechanical side of things. It's that, when we come to talk about a concept like humanising AI, issues like this harm the illusion that the players are people, because they’re acting like robots.

"If you see a behaviour where, yeah, it doesn’t act like people then there is a problem we need to fix," says Silva. "We fix as many as we can, sometimes we cannot get to everything because there are millions of things happening in FIFA and how complicated the code is. Our goal is it should behave like human life, so something that looks robotic or not smart, that’s a problem.

"It's an interesting one though because in theory — actually, not in theory, we've done this for testing purposes — we could make perfect defending AI. So they are always in time, always covering, always checking back, and there are just no goals. They are so good – better than real life! In real life you see lots of goals, so we need to have something in the AI to make sure that the game is open and you can score, so that’s why we’ve put in there things that mean defenders aren’t perfect, maybe they have slower reaction times or maybe they cannot 'see' there’s a player behind them or they 'think' someone else is covering a run.

"So there are two sides. If it’s like your example, then it’s bad. If it fits more in the game, like maybe the defender was slow to react, then it's good. We’d need to look at that example specifically, we look at things on a case-by-case basis in the studio. Every time we see a problem, we stop and we look at the people playing, we check the game and usually decide 'OK, this is good, it’s not happening every time' or 'this is a bug, it’s happening way too often, we need to fix it.'"

I decide to risk a bit of heresy. I really enjoy FIFA, and make sure to play every year's new entry — I also find it's a game that lots of other people play, so it's a good one for local multiplayer. But when alone, at the witching hour, I must confess I prefer the experience of Pro Evolution Soccer. It's not a zero-sum game, they're both wonderful, but it makes me a little sad that FIFA monsters PES commercially to the extent it does (one unofficial estimate I heard of last year's UK sales had FIFA outselling PES by a margin of 40 to 1). Regardless of that, however, PES is FIFA's only real competition, and it does do things a little differently, so I ask Silva what he thought of the most recent entry.

"We really like the competition," says Silva. "We certainly want PES to be around because it gives us another perspective of a football video game, which is very good. We know what they have, we know what they’re good at, and perhaps also we appreciate just how hard it is to achieve that. Of course when you see they are doing these very good things, you think about how you're doing things.

"We want to be better than them in everything and I think that, this year, with things like fluidity, responsiveness, visuals, personality, these put us in a much better spot than we were last year. Maybe the people who last year were picking PES, maybe this year they’ll pick FIFA because they can perform in the field whatever they have in mind. I think some previous FIFAs were too complex in certain situations, and the hardcore players don’t have a problem there, they’re very good and they get used to it, but a lot of people were having trouble and they’d rather have a more fluid and not super-hardcore game maybe like PES for example. But this year, with the approach that we are taking, we think we're in a much better spot for everybody to be able to enjoy FIFA, even more in gameplay because that's the main focus."

The FIFA series is a monster. It's hard to conceive of a world in which they stop being made, such is the popularity of football and the games themselves. It is one of the biggest ongoing projects in the industry and, when you step back from it, seriously impressive in both the quality it produces and the ability to make that release date every year. Which made me wonder: just how many people work on a modern FIFA title?

"There are people who directly work on it, people who work around it like in marketing, people that work collecting data, all these different teams. If the answer involves anybody touching FIFA, it’s many thousands. If it's just everybody directly making FIFA, touching the code every day, then maybe 300 coders. But that's not the answer," laughs Silva. "It’s impossible."